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March 27, 2011

Babylon 5: A Voice in the Wilderness
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:22 PM *

(Crossposted from Noise2Signal, where comments are enabled.)

Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.
Xian Yu, as quoted in Firefly

With this double episode, we are finally back to the big plot, back to dialog that resonates with deeper meaning and wider implications, back to characters who are allowed to change and events whose effects extend beyond the closing credits. It’s been a while coming, after the brief, vertiginous glimpse in Signs and Portents faded back into Freak of the Week episodes. But from this point on, the balance between one-offs and pieces of the story arc shifts. This is when the show wakes up, stretches, and gets good.

The plot-triggering event is a series of seismic disturbances on the planet below Babylon 5. Like most quakes, it is notable not only for its immediate violence, but also for the subtle, permanent shift it makes in the landscape around it. Things happen when worlds shake. People show their true natures, and are changed by the revelations around them and inside themselves1.

The other early event of the story, which will have its own long-term implications, is the outbreak of revolution on the Mars Colony. The Free Mars movement strikes suddenly, rebelling against the Earth-controlled provisional government. We’ve only had hints of the tension there before, and even now it has very little impact on the station as a whole. But it’s Garibaldi’s own personal earthquake, shaking him out of his habitual ways of dealing with the past.

(This is a particularly interesting set of storylines to consider right now, by the way. We’ve just had an earthquake leading to a risk of nuclear disaster2, we’re seeing popular uprisings in distant countries, and the faction that wants to bomb everything it can’t control is calling on the com channel again. One almost wonders if certain world leaders have had a recent visit from a mysterious stranger who wants to know what they want. But I digress.)

The story opens with the usual Babylon 5 tropes: a stranger arrives on the station. Garibaldi is being a jerk (in this case, sexually harassing Talia Winters3). Ivanova is coordinating things in C&C while Sinclair mediates a treaty negotiation between Delenn and Londo. Even the seismic investigation by Dr. Tasaki’s team is an ordinary activity, until the beam of energy nearly shoots their shuttle down.

But you know all these things are going to matter this time, because the dialog has started ringing like a bell again.

Delenn: I would suggest there is a difference between being unreasonable and being angry. Ambassador G’Kar is angry much of the time, but even the greatest anger fades with time.
Londo: My dear Ambassador Delenn, I am sure that for you this is true. But for G’Kar and his people, they will do all that they can to destroy us, until the universe itself decays and collapses. If the Narns all stood together in one place and hated, all at the same time, that hatred could fly across dozens of light years and reduce Centauri Prime into a ball of ash. That’s how much they hate us.
Sinclair: You don’t have to respond in kind.
Londo: Of course we do. There’s a natural law. Physics tells us that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. They hate us, we hate them, they hate us back. And so here we are, victims of mathematics.

JMS has his thumb on the scales, of course, and the characters are speaking like oracles. Everything they say is going to come true, one way or another. This is particularly the case with Draal, the Minbari whose arrival starts the first episode off. His first conversation with Delenn centers on a philosophical concept4 he taught her years before:

The third principle of sentient life is the capacity for self-sacrifice: the conscious ability to override evolution and self-preservation for a cause, a friend, a loved one.

That opening line is like a red shirt in a landing party. Start off like that, and you know that someone is going to be sacrificing themselves before long. And Draal is clearly a character in search of a vocation, a key in search of a lock:

My feet are firmly on the path and the road beckons me down to the sea. There I will find the purpose and meaning that I have lost among my own people. Be glad, Delenn. Be glad.

It’s not entirely clear what “going to the sea” means in Minbari culture. It’s not death, but it seems to lead to it, because Draal talks about “being of service before the end”. It’s clearly irreversible. Delenn says, “Then when you leave here, I will never see you again.” I don’t know that it’s further explained in the series, and it has the feel of an insufficiently thought-out piece of alien culture, dragged in for short-term plot utility. On the other hand, I don’t know how easy it would be to explain a character joining a monastic order in a few short strokes of dialog, either.

(Also, peripherally, however great Draal’s service to the universe ends up being, his first act as Guardian is to kill all the viable remnants of a nearly-extinct species. Once Varn dies, a few days after the end of the episode, his people will be gone for good. I’m a little uncomfortable with this being portrayed as a good thing.)

But Draal is not the only one in the story haunted by a sense of destiny he’s not sure how to fulfill. Garbaldi’s subplot about the woman he left behind6 on Mars Colony is another instance of the same class. He becomes increasingly sure, as he goes to greater and greater lengths to get news of Lise, that she is in some way his soul mate.7 (“She’s all right. She has to be. That’s all there is to it.”) Even though it turns out that she is married to someone else, the episode feels like a turning point for Garibaldi. As we saw in Survivors and TKO, he has all but given up on his own agency in relationships. His way of dealing with people from his past is entirely reactive: if they don’t contact him, he doesn’t know where they are or what they have become. He won’t let himself care about them, or put any effort into the relationship.

The effort to find Lise demonstrates a substantial change in that pattern. It’s not just that he exerts himself to get in touch, either. He thinks about what he feels, and what he wants. He talks about it. He admits uncertainty and vulnerability. I don’t get the feeling that he’s done much of that in the past. I’m not sure that this change has any longer-term plot significance, but it’s one more strand in the theme of vocations woven through the storyline.

Another character who gets shaken out of old habits is Londo. At the start, he is what he has been for most of the series: a buffoon. He charms Garibaldi out of his black mood (ironically, with a story of romance gone bad), then stiffs him for his drink. His parting comment is classic character self-declaration:

Now I go to spread happiness to the rest of the station. It’s a terrible responsibility, but I have learned to live with it.

And then, immediately after he has so characterized himself, comes the first tiny quiver of his own earthquake, the first seismic shift from clown to what he will become. He sees a projection of Varn, the dying alien on the planet below, who is looking for someone with a vocation for self-sacrifice to replace him. Obviously, this is the lock to Draal’s key, not to Londo’s. But it rouses something in him:

As a young and foolish Centauri, I swore I would die on my feet, doing something noble, and brave, and futile. Perhaps it was not so wild a dream as I thought. Or as foolish. It is better than waiting for the inevitable.

It’s true that Londo’s thirst for a great destiny is one of the engines of destruction in Babylon 5, and that some are yet ungotten and uborn that shall have cause to curse the moment he stops telling funny anecdotes and cadging drinks. Not all the threads in this story are light ones. But they’re necessary, and this one starts here.

Even the minor characters get to talk in terms of vocations and destiny (though since they’re minor characters, their prophecies don’t come true). Dr. Tasaki, the planetologist who investigates the effect of the seismic activity, asks Ivanova, “What better way to go out than in the cause of advancing scientific knowledge?” (Ivanova’s reply: “Is this a multiple choice question? Because I have some ideas.”)

One person who is quite obviously being fitted up for a destiny that is not furthered in this story is Sinclair. Varn appears to him as well, well before he does to Londo and Draal. But he spends the episode being less a character with a vocation and more an updated version of Jim Kirk. First he risks two thirds of the command crew on a dangerous trip planetside. Then he has to assert his primacy over the EarthForce captain who turns up and tries to control the situation8 before battling the aliens who want to claim the advanced technology he and Ivanova found. And in the meantime, he’s worrying about the practicalities of evacuating the station (Though not, I notice, making any plans or reviewing existing ones. Don’t they do contingency planning?).

He also, in my opinion, acts unjustifiably high-handedly about Ivanova.

Sinclair: One last thing, a favor. If we have to evacuate, you know we’ll never get everyone off the station. Ambassadors, women and children, civilians go first. Some of the command staff will have to stay on board until…
Garibaldi: (nods)
Sinclair: I’d appreciate it if you could make sure Ivanova gets on the last ship out. She’ll want to stay, but she’s got her whole career ahead of her.
Garibaldi: Understood. She’ll be on it if I have to drug her and toss her in before the doors close.

The kindest interpretation I can put on this is that he is so deeply in denial about his own hunger for a greater destiny that he projects that onto Ivanova. My first reaction, though, was that it served him right that Delenn denied him much the same right to choose for himself when she took Draal planetside:

Garibaldi:Ask you a question? Why the end-run around us? When you figured out that someone was going to have to take Varn’s place down there, why didn’t you come to us and let us handle it?
Delenn: Because if I had, I know in my heart that Commander Sinclair would be the one down there right now. He’s looking for a purpose. But his destiny lies elsewhere.

Delenn is interesting in this episode for a slightly different reason. She’s not, at this point, at the start of her own transformative journey. We’ve only had hints so far, but she’s already underway on something as dramatic and risky as Draal’s assumption of the role of Guardian. And yet she is still profoundly changed by the events in these episodes. At the start, she’s the voice of a kind of bone-deep optimism:

Without a hope that things will get better, that our inheritors will know a world that is fuller and richer than our own, life is pointless, and evolution is vastly overrated.

But her cri de coeur, seeing Draal silent in the Guardian’s machine, has none of that hopefulness left:

Tell me that it is a wonder, so that I may sleep at night when all I can see is this place.

Of course, Delenn does not have a history of taking the loss of a mentor easily. Her reaction to the death of Dukhat was to cast the deciding vote to make war on Earth. Being able to consent to and assist with Draal’s sacrifice is a form of self-sacrifice for her as well, a kind of growing up.

In the midst of all this personal growth, we do also get some plot elements that will come back again. The Mars Colony rebellion will be complicated, difficult, and a magnet for yahoos for some time to come. EarthDome’s deeply divided attitude toward Babylon 5, and the overly aggressive style of conflict-handling it favors, will continue to be a problem for the station commander. And Draal and his machine will be intermittent allies to Babylon 5 during the Shadow War.

It’s worth noting that this is not an Ivanova episode. She doesn’t grow or change. What she does do, of course, is get all the best lines:

And just one more thing. On your trip back, I’d like you to take the time to learn the Babylon 5 mantra: Ivanova is always right. I will listen to Ivanova. I will not ignore Ivanova’s recommendations. Ivanova is God. And if this ever happens again, Ivanova will personally rip your lungs out. Babylon Control out. 9(Looks round. Everyone previously frozen in place quickly disperses)
(Looks up) Just kidding about that God part. No offense.
Ivanova: Commander, we don’t have a lot of time. We’re cut off from the way we came in. We don’t know if we can find another way back to the ship before we run out of air.
Sinclair: We can’t leave him like this.
Ivanova: I know, I know. It’s a Russian thing. When we’re about to do something really stupid, we like to catalog the full extent of our stupidity, for future reference.
Ivanova: Ambassador, do you really want to know what’s going on down there right now?
Londo: Yes. Absolutely.
Ivanova: (in Londo’s ear) Boom…boom boom boom…boom boom…boom! Have a nice day.

  1. I know this from personal experience, too. The overwhelming kindness and generosity of the days after Loma Prieta quake in 1989 destroyed any temptation in me to see the great mass of people as selfish and unruly, a force of dark impulses only controllable by the external imposition of law. My social liberalism, my anti-authoritarian love of self-organizing communities, and my general trust in people were hugely strengthened by that time.
  2. I must briefly aargh that Ivanova says that “the fusion reactors are approaching critical mass.” Aargh. There. Done.
  3. I do wish Sinclair had told him to knock it off. Or that Talia refused to help him because he was being such a creep.
  4. Although the nugget in question is useful for these episodes, it reminds me of the rule that people should not try to write characters who are wiser or smarter than themselves. Surely the religious caste of Minbari—the moral arm of an ancient race full of very smart people—would treasure slightly more layered aphorisms.5
  5. In an ironic way, my bemusement echoes Londo and the Hokey Pokey. “Six thousand years of recorded history. A history that includes remarkable composers, astonishing symphonies. But what is the one song that half of them sing to their children, from generation to generation?”
  6. Why is The Girl He Left Behind not a TV Trope, by the way?
  7. Spoiler: She is, but there’s a lot of plot between now and then.
  8. Honestly, if Sinclair is a Gary Stu, JMS’s great fear is losing creative control of his work. Everyone tries to take over some piece of his command, every chance they get: Bester in Mind War, Kemmer in Survivors, Zento in By Any Means Necessary, Ben Zayn in Eyes, even Neroon in Legacies.
  9. This is my favorite quote from the series. I even riffed on it for my own professional Mantra.

The next post will discuss Babylon Squared.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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