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January 20, 2011

Babylon 5: Hearing the Voices
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:20 PM * 110 comments

[W]e are discussing a TV show on Making Light, a blog run by several close friends where we can talk about writing and politics.
Steven Brust

There’s a subtle technique to bringing a reader into a story; Jo Walton dubbed it “incluing”. Because the rule show, don’t tell doesn’t always cover introductions. Sometimes you have to tactfully mention something the viewer needs to know but isn’t yet aware of. It’s a fine line: too much of it too obviously, and the characters jaw each other dead rehashing things they are already entirely aware of. Not only does it rob the story of momentum, but it’s also deeply annoying. You’re an idiot, says the author, and need a good firm whack with this here clue-stick to figure out what’s going on.

Babylon 5 has a terrible case of it in the first half of the first season, both in the micro and the macro. The series of Problem of the Week episodes that follow Midnight on the Firing Line are fractal patterns of patronizing exposition, from their existence in the first place through their carefully character-revealing plots, and right down to their excruciating dialog. A wiser writer would have dropped us into the big plot and trusted us to figure out the personalities on the fly.

This entry will use the first five PotW episodes to rant about the problems of excessive exposition; feel free to join in in the comments. There’s enough summary here that you can skip the episodes completely, or watch them as worked examples of incluing gone horribly wrong.

Soul Hunter

This is a Delenn episode, making up for the fact that her name is never even uttered in Midnight on the Firing Line. She deserves the attention; she’s important to both the culture of Babylon 5 and the plot to come.

Unfortunately, the episode reveals a completely different, and much less admirable, person than the one we see in the rest of the series. It’s the equivalent of the “Éowyn is a bad cook and prone to giggling” scene in the extended version of The Two Towers. Delenn starts off by waving a loaded weapon around Medlab, to the peril of everyone there, then excuses herself by explaining that Soul Hunters are bogeymen for Minbari children. Later, she allows herself to be captured and tied up, alternately shrieks and faints, and ends up being rescued by a guy with a gun. The episode closes with her petting soul-globes like little kittens.

This is a strange contrast to the stern Satai Delenn who helped shield the dying Dukhat from the Soul Hunter during their last encounter. Religious-caste Minbari don’t end up on the Grey Council by being the equivalent of Penelope Pittstop, but that’s what we see of her here. There’s also very little here on which to build a character who can tell an entire war fleet to “be somewhere else”, and see them fly off.

The one good piece of characterization in the whole thing isn’t about Delenn at all. It’s Ivanova’s funeral for the murdered grifter. Her simple recitation of the prayer for space burial is both businesslike and deeply felt. It even pulls Dr. Franklin into a reflective mood. (We’ll come back to Ivanova, and faith in general, in another entry.)

Born to the Purple

This episode, written by Larry DiTillio rather than JMS, is probably my favorite of the group. It’s Londo’s turn in the spotlight. We’re supposed to be fond of him at this point in the long plot, and episodes like this make that easy. He is a fool and a buffoon, but all the world loves a lover.

The plot is straight-up “hooker with a heart of gold”: Adira, a Centauri slave and dancing girl, is forced by her owner to obtain files of secret blackmail material from Londo. She and Londo are having an intense affair, so much so that he’s neglecting important negotiations with the Narn Regime. But it’s clear that Adira and Londo do care for each other: she’s deeply reluctant to betray him, and he, on finding himself betrayed, is still desperate to protect her.

In the meantime, Garibaldi is investigating a misuse of the station’s priority communications channels. He finally hacks into the signal in time to see Ivanova talking to her dying father back on Earth.

The expository dialog in the episode is spectacularly dreadful. Both Londo and Adira preface emotional statements with, “I am Centauri,” as though after the time they’ve spent in bed there could be any species-doubt left. And Garibaldi’s “As you know” explanation of the Gold Channels to Ivanova is a classic of the type. What of the following would she not already know?

Lieutenant Commander, Gold Channels are priority access, usable only by express permission of Commander Sinclair. No one outside of the ambassadors and the senior officers even knows they exist.

But what saves the episode for me is Londo’s final words to Adira:

I am an old man. I have been in love many times, and I have been hurt many times. I’ll survive.

Because sometimes people really do explain themselves to each other in the clear.

Infection

I actually have a theory that this is a long-lost Old Trek episode. JMS found it in a trunk somewhere and tweaked it to show us some more of Dr. Franklin. The setup has all the hallmarks: species-level conflict, imminent peril to the ship station, easy good guy/bad guy distinctions, and a swift solution with no longer-term repercussions. There’s a plot hole the size of a jump gate (they got the guy’s name from his alien-species RNA-equivalent in under half an hour? A day ago they were tentatively guessing that the artifacts might be biological.) And the climactic battle between the gung-ho commander and the monster finishes with a moralistic speech about tolerance and the value of science over religious orthodoxy.

Key takeaways, if you want to skip this episode:

  1. There are big corporations in this universe. They use their money in unethical ways.
  2. Dr. Franklin is a highly principled man. He can be tempted, briefly, by a lot of money, but will resist in the end. Particularly if there’s murder involved.
  3. Sinclair is very clever, and can think and talk as well as fight.
  4. Garibaldi thinks Sinclair is being too much of a daredevil.
  5. The Babylon 5 Generic Reporter Character can be intimidated by Susan Ivanova. (“Don’t. You’re too young to experience that much pain.”)

Parliament of Dreams

In my opinion, this is the worst episode in all of Babylon 5. (At least we get it over with early.) The three subplots neither intersect nor mirror one another. And they are almost entirely dreadful.

The fierce-hearted representative of the Narn Regime, G’Kar, tempered by generations of genocide and war, hears that an old enemy has sent an assassin to Babylon 5 to kill him. He immediately panics, decides he mistrusts his new aide Na’Toth, hires a thuggish grunt from the underworld to protect himself, lets Garibaldi find lacy red human underwear in his quarters during the investigation of the grunt’s murder, and nearly loses track of the little crayfish he intends to have for dinner. He is, of course, captured, subjected to great pain, and rescued by Na’Toth. And their glee at framing the assassin with his own guild is as shallow and pointless as the rest of the subplot.

Meanwhile, Sinclair’s old flame, Catherine Sakai, has come to Babylon 5 to arrange some survey work. The subsequent romance is plagued by a chronic case of As You Know, Bob My Darling about their long and tangled past. Mind you, I don’t have a problem with that kind of behavior between consenting adults, but I wish they’d take it behind closed doors. It scares the horses and bores the audience. I’ll be nasty and ruin the surprise: they do in fact get back together, still protesting that this is a bad idea because it never works out. As they both know. Darling. Smooch.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of a celebration of the various religions on Babylon 5. For most of the episode, this is just a weird distraction. I suppose it’s informative to find out that Centauri celebrations involve cheering about genocide, getting drunk, and yodeling, and that the Minbari have a shared-meal ritual. I’m baffled why the deeply religious Narn don’t get a look-in till a later episode. But this is the thread that redeems the story for me, just a little, when Sinclair is supposed to show the ambassadors the “dominant belief system” of Earth. He simply arranges a long receiving line of members of different Terran religious traditions and introduces the aliens to everyone. The two touches I particularly appreciated were that he started with an atheist, and that there are multiple tribes of Native American represented.

Mind War

This is neither the worst nor the best of the episodes in this sequence. But it’s a good place to stop and show how all of this frightful exposition could have been done better. Also, it’s got my favorite casting decision in the whole series: Bester, the PsiCop, played with dead-eyed brilliance by Walter Koenig. If you’re only going to watch one of this set, watch this one.

Bester and a colleague (Kelsey) come onto Babylon 5 in pursuit of a rogue telepath, Jason Ironheart. Ironheart is rather like River Tam, a psionic driven mad by people trying to boost his power. He’s also an old friend and lover of Talia’s; the episode is partly to set her up as a “good” telepath, in opposition to the Psi-Corps.

This involves making sure that we know that the Psi-Corps is bad. Ironheart tells us all about it, first when talking to Talia:

We all thought Psi-Corps was controlled by the government, but that’s changing. They’re starting to pull the strings behind the scenes. They’re more powerful than you can begin to imagine. Telepaths make the ultimate blackmailers, Talia. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen it all.

(Note the repetition at the end of the speech. That’s a particular quirk of JMS’s scripting, intended to emphasize the last point. It can get tiresome. It can get tiresome.)

Ironheart also warns Sinclair about the Psi-Corps:

The Psi-Corps is dedicated to one thing, Commander: control. Control over telepaths, the economy, the courts, over matter, over thought itself.

Thing is, these warnings are entirely unnecessary. In simple pursuit of the plot, Bester and Kelsey ream Talia’s mind in distressing fashion, mislead Sinclair in order to constrain his choices and control his actions, reach into people’s minds without asking their permission, and out-menace Garibaldi. Bester, creepy to the last, leaves the station with the salute, “Be seeing you.” Since when do we need to be told they’re sinister and controlling?

Likewise, this kind of speech isn’t how to show that Talia and Ironheart were close:

We were lovers. He was everything to me, the perfect model of what it meant to be in the Corps. Do you know what it’s like when telepaths make love, Commander? You drop every defense, and it’s all mirrors reflecting each other’s feelings. Deeper and deeper, until, somewhere along the line, your souls mix, and it’s a feeling so profound it makes you hurt. It’s the only moment in a telepath’s life when you no longer hear the voices. He came to say goodbye, Commander. He came to say goodbye.

There’s too little spark between the characters in the episode, so this speech doesn’t work. But it would have taken very few touches or long looks to wordlessly establish everything that Talia says to Commander Sinclair. It would have been more tasteful as well, and reduced the amount of bad bluescreening in the episode by a marked degree.

By contrast, while Talia is engaged in frantic exposition with someone who will shortly resemble a character out of Reboot, Catherine Sakai is learning some genuinely interesting things about her fellow characters and the universe at large. There’s only minimal gratuitous speechifying involved. She’s been contracted to explore a world in Narn space, though G’Kar has warned her that it’s not safe. She insists on going anyway. Before she leaves, he carefully clears off a gun-sized area on the mantlepiece:

Let me pass on to you the one thing I’ve learned about this place. No one here is exactly what he appears.

Catherine’s subsequent encounter with a mysterious ship, and her rescue by the Narn vessels that G’Kar sent, are good exposition. From this we learn that there are bigger forces in the universe than the species who inhabit Babylon 5, and that G’Kar can be subtle and gracious in his own way.

And then, at the end of the episode, we see the newest gun on the mantlepiece: a brief glimpse of the G’Kar that is to come.

They are a mystery. And I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not yet explained everything.

In some ways, seeing that kind of good self-explanation just makes all the wrong attempts worse.


Next up will be The War Prayer and And the Sky Full of Stars, two early steps into the larger plot of the series.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

Comments on Babylon 5: Hearing the Voices:
#1 ::: Ide Cyan ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:14 PM:

The episode closes with her petting soul-globes like little kittens.

And, as I recall, crushing them. Sharp kitty, dead kitty, little shards of glass...

#2 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:15 PM:

What, first comment? Surely not by the time I finish typing.

I have to admit that "Parliament of Dreams" flung me right out of the show. The idea that Earth was the only stellar nation with a heterogenous religious background? The only race that claimed religious tolerance as a virtue? (I don't know whether that's what the show really conveyed, but that's what I remember taking from it, back when the thing originally aired.)

I walked out in a huff (metaphorically) and didn't watch B5 again for more than a year, when my friends started telling me that the scripts had gotten *way* better and there were monster ships crawling out of hyperspace.

#3 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:16 PM:

# Sheridan is very clever, and can think and talk as well as fight.
# Garibaldi thinks Sheridan is being too much of a daredevil.

Sinclair.

#4 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:17 PM:

She doesn't crush them; she simply releases the shiny shiny souls from the intact spheres. Like kittens who then play with the wind chimes.

#5 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:19 PM:

Glenn @3:

Good catch. Fixed.

I can tell the two guys apart, but I swap their names unpredictably. Must proofread better.

#6 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:21 PM:

Éowyn is a bad cook and prone to giggling

Can't be worse than Eomer's cooking.

#7 ::: Bob with a pseudonym ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:21 PM:

Ah, Walter Koenig. He was so very good at being so very evil. He certainly seemed to enjoy it immensely. What a contrast to his Star Trek days.

#8 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:22 PM:

Andrew @2:

There's evidence in an episode coming up that the Narn have at least two religious traditions and tolerate atheism to boot.

Which is not to say that your reactions are wrong, but there is some mitigation later.

I'm planning to do a thing on faith and religion in Babylon 5 in a few episodes.

#9 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:30 PM:

Reading the synopsis, I feel a strange mix of deja vu and dread.

As in, "Oh, yeah, I remember that!" (smile) and "I don't want watch those again and probably feel deeply disappointed in something I liked the first time around."

#10 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:39 PM:

As a SF/F writer who has been in and out of workshops with non-SF/F readers (some of whom were deathly allergic to "genre cooties"), I have two meta-story excuses for the As You Know Bobs and awkward bits.

JMS was writing for the non-sf crowd, AKA Network Execs. People not familiar with genre-specific story telling mechanics often miss incluing and must be hit over the head, repeatedly, with clue-by-fours. I've learned through trial and error with various readers' groups and workshops that each genre has a lexicon made up of metaphors, tropes, and story telling components. What works in one genre often bombs in another. (I'm a genre omnivore and have learned to be wary of recommending books that are crossovers or outside obvious genre preferences.)

The biggest reason I think this is that all your issues are with the first half of the first season. The same things that are driving you nuts with these episodes are more or less the same the things that drove me nuts when dealing with non SF/F readers of my fiction. Non SF/F readers aren't used to gathering clues about the setting, people, and circumstances from hints dropped in passing. If it's not "real world" or "historically (in)accurate", they can't cope because they lack the skill/training/inclination to build pictures in their heads out of hints. What I though was heavy handed exposition or wanton use of a clue-by-four, they could understand. Incluing was missed every single time. It got to the point I could tell a lot about my critiquer's reading preferences by what they commented on.

It could also be that JMS was working out the kinks in his writing style. He wrote for a wide variety of other shows before he managed to get his own baby. I also know (from painful experience) that switching genres is hard. When I went from literature to sf/f, I had to unlearn a whole lot of "bad" habits. Or, to be more precise, "Bad for a SF/F writer" habits. They were great habits for a writer of literature.

#11 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 06:53 PM:

You missed one of the hooks/big guns on the mantelpiece in The Parliament Of Dreams, although it's because it didn't go off: Delenn's possible "marriage" to Sinclair. Had Sinclair stuck around, Catherine would have been caught by the Shadows while exploring, and... but we get ahead of ourselves here.

And don't feel bad about confusing the names... check about 7 minutes in.

#12 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 07:00 PM:

Glenn @11:

I caught the "marriage" thing, and identified it as a subplot that never happened. I confess that having Catherine be the one to tell him about it made my mind go off in "poly" directions, which is clearly not canon (but good fanfic fodder).

#13 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 07:26 PM:

That scene, with the row of Terrestrial faiths, was one of the things that helped me to realize what's going on in both Babylon 5 and Star Trek (TOS mostly) is that the united Earth culture is being used as a futuristic stand-in for the secular liberal democratic west, while the various aliens are stand-ins (stands-in?) for non-western cultures.

And both series revolve around human-led multi-species political bodies that are reminiscent of the United Nations. (Though in some ways I think the UFP of early Trek, as seen on-screen, is more like NATO; the UN resemblances largely show up in Franz Joseph Schnaubelt's semi-official fan material.)

#14 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 07:33 PM:

abi @#8: one thing that I noticed about the alien's religions in B5 is how few of them have a central deity. The Minbari and the Narn both seem to worship the universe, with some holy wise folk being revered but not considered deities. One could make an argument that Delenn is just one click away from being an atheist, despite being devout.

#15 ::: Max Kaehn ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 07:37 PM:

“Soul Hunter” was the episode that really grabbed me because of the scene where Sinclair hops in a Starfury to go out and grab the ship that’s tumbling toward the station— which started out with me rolling my eyes about the only-the-guy-in-charge-can-do-this instead of sending out someone with more recent flight hours waiting closer to the hangar bay, but then the attitude jets on Sinclair’s Starfury fired in the right sequence to match the tumbling starship. And I sat up and thought “someone cares about getting details like that right!” And that made me pay more attention to the show.

#16 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 07:41 PM:

Oh, also: He had "I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen it all" and "He came to say goodbye, Commander. He came to say goodbye" in the same episode? Someone needed an editor.

Chris points out that this sort of thing is perfectly acceptable when writing a ballad ("a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour"), which, well: "A self-contained island five miles long, located in neutral territory. It's a port of call, home away from home for skippers, millionaires, movie stars, professors, and the rest. Seven lonely castaways, wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of palm fronds and coconuts, all alone in the night. The year is 1964. The name of the place is Gilligan's Island."

#17 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 07:57 PM:

"Minbari" with an N, not "Mimbari".

The B-plot of Mind War so thoroughly didn't work for me, that I didn't even realize what I was supposed to be thinking about it until quite a while later. We're supposed to view G'Kar as a plotting villain, and conclude that he is trying to scare Sakai away from the planet she's surveying, and then calling in an attack on her; and then we're supposed to be surprised when it turns out to be a rescue.

The problem is that in an SF show or movie, when someone says "weird things happen there" and they're not believed, it's always, always Cassandra Truth. (Warning for the susceptible: TVTropes link.) When I first watched, it didn't even occur to me that G'Kar's warning was anything else. (There were, also, already signs that G'Kar was going to have a more complex character arc, so a storyline depending on us assuming he was going to be two-dimensional would have problems.)

I did enjoy the episode anyway.

#18 ::: Marie Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 08:02 PM:

I'm weirdly glad to see this post say up front how terrible these opening episodes are, because I came into B5 entirely the wrong way: with friends hyping it to infinity and beyond, talking about how omg amazing the writing is, there's all these little hints of important things that get set up right from the beginning that you don't even know are important until way later . . . and then I watched the first season, and cringed every three seconds at leaden dialogue, as-you-know-bobs, and Idiot Plots. I flat-out didn't care whether some of those details would be important later, because I had zero desire to continue on. It's taken me until now, five or six years later, to try S2, and while I'm still not blown away, it has improved. If I were starting somebody on the show, I would tell them to start with S2; anything they missed can be filled in after the fact.

#19 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 08:08 PM:

What I like most about "Parliament of Dreams" is the bit where G'Kar refuses to scream. It's just a little detail, doesn't seem to be all that important; I had forgotten all about it by fourth season and his encounters with Cartagia. But rewatching PoD and seeing that--there from the beginning!--makes me shiver.

#20 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 08:16 PM:

(I hadn't seen #18, when I was writing #19. Sorry, Marie, I didn't mean to be doing that thing that all your friends annoyed you with.)

#21 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 08:50 PM:

abi, your rewatch finally tipped me over the edge and made me watch Babylon 5. (Thank you, Netflix free trial!). It doesn't hurt that the last 2 things the Fluorosphere convinced me to try were the Miles Vorkosigan series and the Aubrey & Maturin series. So anyway.

You left out my favorite part of "Infection"; the computer readout on the alien biotechnology reveals that one of its ingredients is maltodextrin.

Also: I hated pretty much every minute of "Mind War". Except for the ant speech. (Though I did flash back to the tesseract explanation from "A Wrinkle In Time in 90 Seconds"!)

#22 ::: Marie Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 10:10 PM:

Mary@20: 'sokay; I do recognize that there are cool things buried in the early episodes, which *are* important later. What my friends didn't really understand was that those things are only cool in retrospect; on a first watching, they're meaningless. And the up-front stuff is not all that shiny.

#23 ::: DBratman ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 11:11 PM:

Abi: I have the same problem remembering which one is Sheridan and which one is Sinclair. I remember the two characters (and the actors who play them) OK; I just can never remember which name goes with which guy.

re the religions in Parliament of Dreams: I'm irked whenever sophisticated alien planets have only one civilization; it's only Earth that has multiple civilizations.

#24 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2011, 11:37 PM:

abi, 12: My friends and I retconned the Delenn/Sinclair marriage when the Delenn/Sheridan marriage happened--of course the One had to marry itself/themselves. Too bad Sheridan and Sinclair never had any joint screen time, is what we decided. (At the time, I'd never heard of slash. Now, I'm sure somebody's written the missing Sheridan/Sinclair scene.)

#25 ::: Sam ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 12:21 AM:

I had started watching B5 'for the first time' via Netflix just before you started this blog series. I'd seen just a few previously and was quite surprised when the commander was not Boxleitner. While some dialog is OTN and stilted at time I'm finding I disagree about some instances. "I am a Centari" seems more of an exclamation like a solder announcing "I am a Marine" than exposition. I'm nearing the end of the first season and the plots are getting more subtle, or at least less simple. There seems to be a lot of jockeying of characters to see who work together, ex. does Sinclair's old girlfriend become regular or did that relationship just not work for the long plot. Guess I'll find out.

Thanks for going to this effort, it's adding an unexpected dimension.

#26 ::: kate ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 12:27 AM:

Yah, I had the same issues with Earth being the only one with diverse religions as Andrew did. But since I'm UU and get hit over the head with that sort of thing a lot anyway, I was able to cope better.

(And I was able to like the G'Kar plot there if I just thought of it as comic relief. When I tried to make it into characterization, it fell down.)

@TexAnne -- Indeed, yes. A number. Perhaps even a plethora. Though the ones I read (which were way back when) didn't base it on the marriage bit.

#27 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 01:22 AM:

I started with "A Late Delivery from Avalon" (and still haven't seen the Nightwatch sequence from season three or most of season five, though I have both on loan). I wasn't boycotting the show -- I was ignoring television, except for Siskel & Ebert, as I was in Dissertation Heck.

My dissertation was about modern Arthuriana. So, while Josh was cheering at something that I did not understand, I was wincing right up until the time the characters said what I was thinking, that no way in heck could someone who looked and talked like that be King Arthur -- the dress was wrong, the language was wrong, everything was wrong.

I caught up on all of third season to that point except the Nightwatch sequence (which didn't get repeated, as far as I can tell, during that year), and got loaned video tapes of the first two seasons, with the warnings about the first season. Given the warnings, I rather liked the first season, but without them, yeah, I would've hated it. And, it helped to see where things were leading.

#28 ::: Curmudgeon ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 01:53 AM:

Cringeworthy exposition not withstanding, there is some decent subtle foreshadowing in these episodes.

Soul Hunter, I think, does set up Delenn very well. The episode demonstrates that Delenn is prone to emotionally driven acts of violence in defense of her people, that she will freeze up and become a damsel in distress when confronted with a situation or threat that lands outside of her life experience, and that she has been promoted somewhat beyond her level of competence. Even though Delenn goes through a lot of changes, every one of these character traits stays with her throughout the series.

That Delenn is more aggressive and irrational in The Gathering and Soul Hunter than in the rest of the series is part of the point of the series and her character arc. One of the overarching themes of B5 is that humans make everything better. At the beginning of the series, Delenn acts like something semi-feral simply because she hasn't been around humans long enough to know any better.

For its part--and I say this with tongue very slightly in cheek--Infection sets up that JMS isn't above rehashing the Trek trope of permanently resolving a grand conflict with little more than a moralistic speech. Cough.

Finally, Parliament of Dreams establishes that B5 will follow the traditional trope about humanity being special compared to every other race. This is a very important message to send for commercial (marketing/ratings) reasons because a space opera audience weened on Trek would be apprehensive about a franchise that kept humanity as one race among many rather than elevating them as something special. The market needs to be assured that B5 humans are just as special to the B5 universe as Trek humans are special to theirs.

Elevating humanity so soon is also important for story purposes because the theme of humans teaching every other alien race how to get along without destroying themselves is a central thread of the series. The groundwork needs to be built immediately for the rest of the story to work.

#29 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 01:58 AM:

David Goldfarb @17:

Fixed. Thanks.

#30 ::: Curmudgeon ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 02:49 AM:

@Victoria #10:

Your point about genre code switching and reader tolerance (or, in B5's case, viewer tolerance) is a very good one.

An ancillary point is that JMS never settled down to following the conventions and tropes of only one subgenre. Different sections of the B5 plot are use different sets of genre conventions. This weakens the story by forcing the viewer to make jarring code switches as the series moves between subplots.

The problems with forcing the viewer to accept a main arc plot told using the conventions of heroic fiction and an Earth subplot told using the conventions of the scifi war subgenre are just as severe as forcing clue-by-four general audience exposition conventions on an SF viewer--especially when the two plots collide.

#31 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 02:57 AM:

Victoria @10:
It could also be that JMS was working out the kinks in his writing style.

This is the view to which I incline. But I haven't seen the later episodes in over a decade; we'll see whether he improves visibly, or whether the plot gets so interesting that we stop caring.

One of the other problems with the first half of the first season, which I'm kind of waving at as I pass by, is that the plot density is relatively low for Bab 5. I'm behind on my writing-up; we've just watched "Signs and Portents". And my reaction to that was "My God, it's full of plot!" Every scene moves the story forward, in the micro and the macro. My notetaking couldn't keep up.

David @17:
I saw G'Kar order up the ships and thought, "Ah-hah! I see they want me to think that G'Kar is going to kill her!"

Perhaps it's that I know that, whatever other cruelties G'Kar has committed, JMS could not write him back from that level of personal betrayal.

TexAnne @24:
My first thought wasn't a Delenn-Sheridan-Sinclair poly relationship. I was wondering what Catherine thought of Delenn as a partner in a triad with (pause, check name) Sinclair.

#32 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 03:21 AM:

Curmudgeon @28:

My memories of Delenn are very different than she's shown in this episode. But I could be wrong; it's been years since I've seen her in more than 3-minute YouTube links.

But even if JMS was trying to say she was out of her depth in the Grey Council and as ambassador (she certainly was at the time of the Earth-Mimbari war; the question is whether she still is at the time of the story), I'm not charmed by the way he went about it.

Since the series came out after Beauty and the Beast, I can't say that JMS treats her like a Disney princess. Even Belle exhibits more control, courage, and get up and go than Delenn does in that episode. But that's the feel of my objection: she reacts to being out of her depth in deprecated girly ways (because, of course, female aliens are still female). And considering how well he writes Ivanova, I can't write it off to unexamined sexism.

So. He chose to use a bunch of Fay Wray tropes as a characterization tool.

Ick.

#33 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 03:24 AM:

Curmudgeon, #28: So, you're saying that JMS was rehashing Campbellian themes because he knew a lot of his audience was still new enough to SF to be on the 1950s Amazing level of understanding? Or just that this is what had to be there in order to sell advertising for the show?

#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 06:35 AM:

Curmudgeon @28:

I've been walking around with this one for a bit, and I'm still a little unconvinced that Babylon 5 contains the message that humans make *everything* better.

The next episode is The War Prayer, after all, foreshadowing the Nightwatch. And we've already met the thoroughly un-improving PsiCorps. The (biologically) human Mr. Morden is still a few episodes away.

Also, when our space station is the venue for the re-ignition of the Centauri-Narn conflict and the coming of the Shadows, I'm not sure you can class us as agents of good in the universe. We may not mean the harm that comes, but without us, would it have happened?

#35 ::: hedgehog5 ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 07:18 AM:

Here's my take on some of the setup that happens in these episodes.

Soul Hunter: "souls" are real -- consciousness can exist without a tangible body.

Infection: you can have living machines (or mechanical life). They can integrate with ordinary biological entities. (Let's skip over the "and that gives them the ability to generate energy out of nowhere" bit.)

Parliament of Dreams: there are great, ancient, almost-incomprehensible entities still acting in this galaxy. (Abi mentioned this.)

Mind War: minds (can) have direct control over matter and energy. Humans can, in principle, transcend their physical existence.

I think all of these are portents, were one but to know it at the time.

(Also, "He simply arranges a long receiving line o f members of different Terran religious traditions and introduces the aliens to everyone." This was the precise moment when I was converted to B5FAN.)

"Lieutenant Commander, Gold Channels are priority access, usable only by express permission of Commander Sinclair. No one outside of the ambassadors and the senior officers even knows they exist." I took that as "I know this, YOU know this, HINT I'm on to you". But yes, Bob.

#36 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 08:11 AM:

abi @ #34: Also, when our space station is the venue for the re-ignition of the Centauri-Narn conflict and the coming of the Shadows, I'm not sure you can class us as agents of good in the universe. We may not mean the harm that comes, but without us, would it have happened?

In both those specific cases, I'd bet on "yes". The Shadows' agent might have taken a bit longer to find his target if there hadn't been a bunch of candidates helpfully gathered in the one place, but I see no reason to suppose he wouldn't have found a target anyway. And as for the Narn-Centauri conflict, without the humans around to do things like make the Narns back down at the end of "Midnight on the Firing Line", it would probably have happened faster.

#37 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 08:28 AM:

abi @ #32: But that's the feel of my objection: she reacts to being out of her depth in deprecated girly ways (because, of course, female aliens are still female).

There was an extended period during pre-production when JMS intended for the Minbari ambassador in the first season to be male, and female Delenn to only show up in the second season. Now I'm wondering how much different "Soul Hunter" would have been if he'd stuck with that plan.

#38 ::: Madeley ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 09:04 AM:

Paul A. @ #37

I understand at one point Delenn herself was meant to be either gender-neutral or male in the first series (hence the more masculine make-up she has in the original pilot), becoming female following the chrysalis transformation.

#39 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 09:16 AM:

hedgehog5 @ 35 ...
"Lieutenant Commander, Gold Channels are priority access, usable only by express permission of Commander Sinclair. No one outside of the ambassadors and the senior officers even knows they exist." I took that as "I know this, YOU know this, HINT I'm on to you". But yes, Bob.

Given that I've been known to use phrases like "Please don't make me have to notice"[0], I definitely read it as "WINK-WINK-HINT-NUDGE".

[0] "As you know Bob, if I have to notice, I'll have to do something about it[1] ... "
[1] ... and thinking about it, 'it' hasn't had the form of a go^H^H ... actually, it has had the form of livestock, never mind..

#40 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 09:36 AM:

Madeley @ #38:

Yes, that's what I meant, but I was trying to say it without referring to events the rewatch isn't up to yet.

#41 ::: Madeley ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 09:55 AM:

Argh, sorry!

#42 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 10:00 AM:

Madeley (41): Don't worry about it; abi specifically warned that there would be spoilers in the comment threads.

#43 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 10:02 AM:

Madeley @41:

Spoilers and points forward are explicitly welcome in the comments. I'm mostly keeping to what I've seen in the main posts, but I bar no one from nothin' in the threads.

I'd heard about the original intention to play Delenn as male until she goes into the chrysalis. But by the time of the series they'd abandoned that.

I'm presuming that "Soul Hunter" would have been very different with a male Delenn, and that really bugs me. Like I said, for scriptwriters even female aliens are still, above all, female, and still trapped in the same annoying set of stereotypes as us female humans.

JMS sold us short. I resent that.

#44 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 10:10 AM:

abi @ 32... Did you ever watch the original "Outer Limits"? It's rarely mentionned that its female characters usually were quite good, and seldom prone to FayWrayism.

#45 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 10:12 AM:

Madeley @ 41... You know who Rosebud was, right? :-)

#46 ::: Beable ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 10:13 AM:

Marie @22 (and @18): That's exactly why whenever I try to turn someone on to B5 I tell them to start watching in season 2 (in the start or even in the middle - there is enough exposition that SF/F fans should cope) and not to bother catching up with previous missed episodes until after all season 2 is watched, or even partway through season 3.

That's the point where all the little breadcrumbs become "oh cool, foreshadowing" bits instead.

I started watching B5 about halfway in S2 and loved it. I spent much of the 3rd season simultaneously trying madly to track down previous episodes and watching the current ones, and had managed to see all but the first few by the time the 4th season rolled around.

Had I started from the beginning, I think I would have been scared off by the awful.

#47 ::: Beable ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 10:30 AM:

Another thought on the first half dozen episodes or so being awkward "establish characterization" episodes: Joel Polowin has a theory on this that I think first came up when we were watching Crusade (in which things are worse because the way they aired them, the first episodes aired are almost watchable and then we got hit with the really crappy episodes that they filmed first and that were aired last).

Anyways, he suggested that most TV shows would be improved if they planned for about a half dozen more episodes than they planned to air, filmed those episodes, and then threw them out, and continued on from there. And I agree. I realize why they don't do this, but so much would be improved if, like sausages, we didn't have to see the first half dozen episodes of the actors, scriptwriters, and directors getting a feel for who the characters are.

Crusade was particularly painful. The first bunch of episodes had passable characterization. Then we got hit with the utter crap of the last-aired episodes in which suddenly all the characters were two-dimensional RPG archetypes - e.g. the thief will open the door, or maybe the mechanic can fix it, you're a wizard, do something!


#48 ::: rgh ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 10:34 AM:

It's a long time since I've seen it, but I seem to recall the problem towards the end was that new challenges had made the previous events irrelevant.

#49 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 10:40 AM:

Beable @ 47... Oh, I remember "Croissant" (as my wife and I called "Crusade"). There were two good things in that show: Peter Woodward, aka the Equalizer's son, and the scene where a hyperspace creature tried to hump the ship.

#50 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 11:08 AM:

Serge @ 49: you forgot another good thing: the entire episode that is an X-Files parody!

#51 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 11:18 AM:

TexAnne @ #24:
I could've sworn they had joint screen time in Season 3 (or so)? In the second part of what happened towards the end of S1.

#52 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 11:22 AM:

Sumana Harihareswara @ 50... I had forgotten that. Speaking of X-files parodies, did you ever watch Baywatch Nights? Yes, David Hasselhoff as Fox Mulder and pre-Law&Order Angie Harmon (Mark's kid sister) as a scientist.

#53 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 11:26 AM:

Concerning the apparent assumption that Earth has multiple religions, while other planets have only one, is it possible that this is how they wish to be seen?

For instance, all the Ethiopians we met, when we first met Ethiopians, were Coptic Christians, and none ever mentioned the presence of any other religions in Ethiopia. Turned out though, that there are several varieties of Christians, as well as Moslems, Jews, and even some older non-monotheistic religions, still actively observed in Ethiopia.

Having said that, what I really think is that writers of these interstellar stories like to take the easy way out when it comes to describing the lives of people from Elsewhere. Never any nationalities even, or hardly ever. It's just easier.

#54 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 11:51 AM:

Curmudgeon @30.

This is where I have to confess that I only saw the first 1.5 seasons of B5. Maybe the first two. It was about that time the network (UPN?) started playing "hide the show." I'd been ticked off at broadcast and cable TV for a while and this the straw that made me cancel my cable subscription and give up watching TV all together.

Almost 20 years later, I'm getting back into regular TV viewing thanks to the internet, network home pages, and sites like Hulu.

As a result, there's a lot of good SF/F TV that I've missed. I love me some DVD/TV. B5 is one of the top "gotta watch this" rentals.

#55 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 12:35 PM:

Abi @31
This is the view to which I incline. But I haven't seen the later episodes in over a decade; we'll see whether he improves visibly, or whether the plot gets so interesting that we stop caring.

I've never seen the later episodes (a la my comment at #54) so this will all be new to me. One of the reasons that I stopped watching TV was the predictability of plot. During any hour-long show, I usually had the ending figured out by the 30 minute mark. Most broadcast TV shows weren't engaging enough to make me care about the second half. In other words, I didn't like the characters enough to follow their journey to the end.

That was why I fell so badly in love with B5. It was so character heavy with vivid people that I didn't care if I figured out the end of the show at the 15 minute mark. The characters had histories both personal and political, singly and in groups. They had motivations, long term goals, short term goals, and all their buttons were clearly present if not clearly marked.

Yes, there were stereotypical and less than sterling personality quirks, but there were enough a-typical people of the same gender (Delenn and Ivanova) to show a realistic mix of general personality types interacting with each other.

This mix of stereotypical and atypical types reflected my experience in every day life, so it lent a level of realism to the series I hadn't experienced before in broadcast TV.

One of the other problems with the first half of the first season, which I'm kind of waving at as I pass by, is that the plot density is relatively low for Bab 5.

I'm defaulting back to books because I'm a semi-reformed LitCritter. In my reading experience there are two kinds of (genre) stories, Plot Driven and Character Driven. B5 is very much Character Driven fiction where other SF series like Star Trek, were Plot Driven. Firefly was another Character Driven show. Stargate Universe didn't know what it wanted to be, so it tried to be both and failed at both. I stopped watching the Star Trek franchise because it was strictly plot driven. If DS9, Voyager or the last one (Enterprise?) got away from the plot-only-don't-develop-the-character-beyond-factory-installed-parameters format, someone will have to tell me. I got deathly sick of Star Trek's "Reset to Zero" format.

I'm behind on my writing-up; we've just watched "Signs and Portents". And my reaction to that was "My God, it's full of plot!" Every scene moves the story forward, in the micro and the macro. My notetaking couldn't keep up.

This is one of the reasons I haven't gone back and did the DVD/TV total immersion thing despite my love and adoration. I was deathly afraid the Suck Fairy (thank you TVTropes.com) had visited. Not just visited, but moved in, set up house, and trashed the place before getting evicted. I recall that B5 and JMS did plot and character well, both at the same time.

#56 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 01:24 PM:

Ingvar M (51): You are correct.

That's one of the first episodes I ever saw (the first was the one right after Severed Dreams, during the mopping up). I was horribly confused for a while when the reruns then wrapped back around to the beginning of the third season; it took me a while to figure out that these events were earlier in the show.

#57 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 04:02 PM:

I still recommend people start watching B5 in viewing order (Albeit I warn them to skip episodes like Infection).

For me, the early episodes weren't so much good as "good enough". That is to say, good enough to keep me willing to watch one more episode. Then I hit "And the Sky Full of Stars" (Which in retrospect isn't nearly as good as it seemed when coming at it fresh), then, a bit later, "Signs and Portents", which both had some moments of being good in ways that were independent of "good enough", and some really obvious, "We're setting up for even more actually good stuff later" and I was hooked.

Of course, it helped to be in the company of someone who was an enthusiastic fan already, and watching in group.

(It occurs to me that I have rather a significant Babylon 5 story.

It didn't show on any station received in Winnipeg at the time. But my friend M. had been sent taped episodes from a guy he knew who was in BC doing a computer animation course - someone who was apprently extremely active in the Lurker's Guide and other such places. Alas, the person taping the episodes stopped sending copies *two episodes into season two*, thus driving not only M, but all the people watching with him, plain old crazy until Winnipeg finally picked it up.

Then said friend moved back to Winnipeg, and I finally met him, and (along with happily welcoming him into M's current RPG) chided him horribly for tormenting us like that.

A few years later, I married him.)

#58 ::: bartkid ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 04:11 PM:

>But what saves the episode for me is Londo’s final words to Adira:
>I am an old man. I have been in love many times, and I have been hurt many times. I’ll survive.

I always thought Londo was telling himself this even though he was speaking to Adira.

#59 ::: Curmudgeon ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 04:31 PM:

@Abi #32:

My primary interest in B5--for reasons my muse has never explained to me--has always been trying to figure Delenn out. Getting me going on this subject may result in some very long (and probably controversial) essays. But not, however, today.

My argument about Delenn being out of her depth in Soul Hunter stems from her brandishing a weapon in medlab. It says very bad things about her preparedness to be ambassador that she's ignorant (or arrogant) enough to think that waving around a weapon is even remotely acceptable behavior. I don't know if JMS intended for Delenn to be inept or if he's just making economies with realism, but the net effect of that sequence is that Delenn looks deeply unprepared for her job.

I was thinking of Delenn's behavior once captured when I mentioned her habit of freezing up when pushed outside the scope of her life experience. Delenn collapses like so much pink tissue paper on most occasions when she's put in immediate personal danger. Soul Hunter is just the first example of a series-long pattern. Sometimes, she'll defend herself if threatened (e.g. the S3 bar fight), but most of the time she'll just freeze (e.g. GROPOS, the killing of Ulkesh in S4) or scream.


I've never really understood what JMS' conception of Delenn really was. He did seem to like the character and wrote an awful lot of dialog telling the viewer how wonderful Delenn is, but he also wasted few opportunities to utterly tear her down showing her to be an emotionally unstable hypocrite, repeatedly subjecting her to gender-loaded acts of humiliation, and hanging pretty much every misogynistic stereotype about why women can't be leaders around her neck at least once.

Delenn had her moments of competence and glory, but she had a lot more moments of very gendered utter failure. Every time Delenn screws up, she screws up in a way that usually echoes at least one misogynistic stereotype about why women shouldn't be in positions of power. When Delenn succeeds, she does it in a genderless way, but when she fails, she usually fails in a way that's stereotypically female.

I very much agree that JMS sold us short with Delenn's demonstrated characterization and I'm definitely bitter about it.

@Lee #33:

A bit of both.

@Abi #34:

Humans making everything better is something that comes out later in the series. By the end of the series, Delenn, G'kar and Londo will have all spewed (term used advisedly) far too much dialog about how completely special humanity is, how humans are the key to everything, and how the rest of the galaxy owes humans a favor. None of this is justified by how humanity acts, but this doesn't stop the rest of the galaxy from worshiping humans as god's gift to the universe.

@Madeley #38 and @Abi #43:

The person who designed Delenn's makeup has a take on why Delenn was female from ep #1 that's somewhat different from the conventional wisdom:

http://barnyardfx.blogspot.com/2010/05/babylon-5-you-may-think-you-recognize.html

@Victoria #55:

Are you really sure you want to watch this series all the way through? :-)

B5 goes through a bad transformation at the end of season 3 and becomes very plot driven. The suck fairy arrives in full force in season 4 and the series never recovers to its former glory.

#60 ::: Bryan Feir ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 04:35 PM:
Garibaldi thinks Sinclair is being too much of a daredevil.
From what I recall of that episode, it wasn't so much just 'being too much of a daredevil' as a flat-out accusation of Sinclair acting out of survivor's guilt.
#61 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 05:20 PM:

"The series of Problem of the Week episodes that follow Midnight on the Firing Line are fractal patterns of patronizing exposition, from their existence in the first place through their carefully character-revealing plots, and right down to their excruciating dialog. A wiser writer would have dropped us into the big plot and trusted us to figure out the personalities on the fly."

I agree with many of your criticisms of the individual episodes, but not so much on the fact that they're there. Keep in mind that this was the first major sci-fi story arc TV show. Audiences weren't used to it. It's well possible that, if the episodes had been all about the main plotlines from the start, very few people would have bothered to watch in the first place. So arguably, JMS had to "lure" people into watching B5 by making it look as if it would be simply Star Trek with a bit more scientific literacy. Then again, I rather like episodic TV myself, so perhaps that's just my biases talking.

Re: Infection- I'm not sure if I remember that episode, and I don't have it available at the moment, so I have to go by your comments and web information, but except for the speech part, the things you're complaining about don't sound that bad to me, and the story of the fall of the Ikarrans is IMO a nice little comment on political and ideological purity tests.

Avram @13, "That scene, with the row of Terrestrial faiths, was one of the things that helped me to realize what's going on in both Babylon 5 and Star Trek (TOS mostly) is that the united Earth culture is being used as a futuristic stand-in for the secular liberal democratic west, while the various aliens are stand-ins (stands-in?) for non-western cultures."

One aspect. Another one might be that SF/sci-fi writers often simply add any alien planets to the list of countries on Earth. Yet another way to look at it is to assume that many SF/sci-fi writers unconsciously use a mental model that divides the universe into two parts, "Earth" and "Space", with each part having about the same amount of internal complexity (and the same length of internal traveling distances). A lot of things in many stories, movies, shows, games, etc. make more sense if you assume that their creators, writers and producers unconsciously use this mental model.

"And both series revolve around human-led multi-species political bodies that are reminiscent of the United Nations."

Hmmm, I'd say the UFP is more like how many people originally hoped the UN (and before that, the League of Nations) would work out, while the Council of Babylon 5 (as opposed to the later Interstellar Alliance) has more in common with how the UN has worked out so far.

Curmudgeon @59, thanks for sharing that link! Puts some new light on some interesting aspects.

#62 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 06:02 PM:

Victoria@55: If DS9, Voyager or the last one (Enterprise?) got away from the plot-only-don't-develop-the-character-beyond-factory-installed-parameters format, someone will have to tell me. I got deathly sick of Star Trek's "Reset to Zero" format.

DS9 did to some degree and Voyager attempted to but famously was hamstrung by Executive meddling. The suits wanted Voayger to be like TNG while the creative staff (led initially by Ronald Moore of BSG fame) wanted to go character driven with a long dramatic arc. Had they got their way, we could have had a Star Trek that had elements of the later BSG reboot in it which would have been awesome. Instead, we had well, Voyager. A spaceship lost in an unfriendly part of the galaxy, where they never run out of supplies, always keep the ship and uniforms in Bristol Fashion and only flirt with hard decisions, but never ever (hardly ever) get their hands dirty. and a Borg in a Catsuit.

But anyway: B5. yeah, rocky start. I like the idea someone mentioned above of discarding the first few episodes and starting the series after they get the kinks out. When my long form dramatic sci-fi series gets picked up, I'll be sure to write a pre-pilot play and have the main cast come in and run through it first, to work out the kinks before going into production. Workshop the TV show, as it were.

#63 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 06:48 PM:

Curmudgeon @59:
Delenn collapses like so much pink tissue paper on most occasions when she's put in immediate personal danger.

Hm. I was just watching "And The Sky Full of Stars", taking notes for the next entry.

She walks up to a delusional Sinclair and faces down his RPG, knowing he's already been firing on his friends. She talks him down, and even when he does fire in her general direction (over her shoulder at Knight Two, who is rising to shoot him), she doesn't lose her composure.

That's collapsing like pink tissue paper?

Further watching will show, but I think you're matching a pattern I don't know that I'll see.

#64 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 08:03 PM:

Older @ 53 ...
Concerning the apparent assumption that Earth has multiple religions, while other planets have only one, is it possible that this is how they wish to be seen?

Except there's mention of multiple religions and species in places perceived to be ostensibly monotheistic throughout B5 (G'kar is, of course, a classic example).

abi @ 63 commented about ...
Curmudgeon @59:
Delenn collapses like so much pink tissue paper on most occasions when she's put in immediate personal danger.

#63 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 06:48 PM:
Curmudgeon @59:
Delenn collapses like so much pink tissue paper on most occasions when she's put in immediate personal danger.

Hm. I was just watching "And The Sky Full of Stars", taking notes for the next entry.

She walks up to a delusional Sinclair and faces down his RPG, knowing he's already been firing on his friends. She talks him down, and even when he does fire in her general direction (over her shoulder at Knight Two, who is rising to shoot him), she doesn't lose her composure.

That's collapsing like pink tissue paper?

Further watching will show, but I think you're matching a pattern I don't know that I'll see.

Indeed -- Delenn seems to be remarkably capable of dealing with a wide variety of immediate personal dangers.

I know for myself, if faced with a group of inebriated marines bent on mayhem, and completely unwilling or unable to listen to reason -- well -- I don't think there's a good option. Physical confrontation certainly wouldn't be a good idea...

... and note that the first thing that Delenn did once she was able to get away wasn't to hide or vanish -- it was to track down help, and then speak for the people that had gotten involved.

#65 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 08:10 PM:

I think the issue of the monolithic presentation of alien races is different for the Centauri and the Minbari as opposed to all the others (Narn especially).

The Centauri are presented as a conqueror culture; I assume that the most powerful nation on the home world conquered everyone else before they got space flight and imposed their own culture on everyone. When they started colonizing other planets, the overlords made sure their culture continued to be the only one allowed.

While the Minbari don't appear to be organized into nations or any other sort of geographical/cultural divisions, they are broken apart into castes that don't seem to talk to each other much. I get the sense that the caste divisions are old enough that they're all that remain of previous divisions that evolved into them. So the Minbari have divisions, but ones very different from humanity.

As for the other races, I think that was just either laziness or lack of perceived time to write in the additional complications. I think it would have been a good idea, at least for the Narn, who we see more than most other races.

#66 ::: kate ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 08:22 PM:

I do agree with Curmudgeon that many (most) of Delenn's flaws have to do with gendered tropes I'm pretty sure JMS would contend he wasn't putting in there. (But then, JMS's reactions to criticism are... Entertaining to watch but not much fun to deal with.)

OTOH, as I recall her, while she does a lot of quiver-voiced Sad Panda, she also does a lot of strong decision making and some degree of straightforward, pretty brave action.

So. Agree with both Curmudgeon and Abi. Quelle surprise.

#67 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 08:26 PM:

Bruce, 65: So the Minbari have divisions, but ones very different from humanity.

Very true. "I was born into the warrior caste, but my heart has always been religious."

(Which looks really dumb written down, but I was spellbound when it aired. My previously-mentioned friends and I agreed that it was The Voice that did it.)

#68 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 09:01 PM:

TexAnne (67): Wasn't it, "I was born warrior caste, but now I know that the calling of my heart is religious"? That was an amazing moment.

#69 ::: Curmudgeon ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 10:08 PM:

@Abi, Xeger, Kate:

Like I said, Delenn does have her strong moments--like dealing with Sinclair--but she does fall so far into gendered trope land often enough that those incidents stick in my mind very prominently.

I haven't done a tally of whether Delenn's strong moments outnumber her damsel in distress/idiot female character moments[1] but the fact that she has a non-trivial number of the latter is enough to make me raise an eyebrow at JMS' creative choices.

I'll have more to say about GROPOS we get to it.


[1] I'm not happy with the connotations of that phrase but I can't think of a better term to describe when a female character does something idiotic because she's written as a walking gender stereotype. Ideas? 'Stepford moment,' perhaps?

#70 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 10:25 PM:

Mary Aileen, 68: It's entirely possible--I don't think I've seen it since it aired.

#71 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2011, 11:24 PM:

When I first watched Season One, most of the episodes were very interesting. (I think "War Prayer" and the kickboxing one were the suckiest; "Infection" was exciting at the time but not so good in retrospect -- but it had the very nice and counter-genre moment where Garibaldi corners Sinclair and asks him "Why are YOU going in when we have plenty of redshirts?" (paraphrased)).

I wasn't as experienced with SF tropes, and _nobody_ was experienced with arc shows (except maybe anime fans), so a lot of the stuff people are talking about as obvious wasn't obvious to me. (For instance, it did feel like G'kar was threatening Catherine in "Mind War", and the reverse where the Narn fighters rescue her came as a surprise. That's the moment when G'kar stops being the villain character of the show and starts being more complicated.)

Incluing is a wonderful thing, but I'm not sure that you can do it to an untrained audience (and mass television audiences are usually much less trained to this sort of thing than heavy SF readers, or even heavy readers of other genres.)

I was just happy to have an SF show that apparently knew something about Newtonian physics and was taking on some of the stupider ST tropes (like the command crew doing shore party duties). It took me a while to figure out how much more was going on -- but it was Season One that hooked me, not the later seasons.

#72 ::: Marc Mielke ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2011, 01:19 AM:

Rewatching of 'Soul Hunter' for the first time since the series aired made it completely understandable that Delenn goes completely to pieces.

Given how the renegade SH is willing to kill to collect the soul of a Minbari Satai, what might he do for that of a Minbari religious leader?

Given the possibility, Delenn has to consider the very possible eradication of her entire race...or maybe all of them!

I fully sympathize with her totally losing her shit throughout the episode.

#73 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2011, 10:58 AM:

re 55/62: DS9 actually did some story-arcs from almost the beginning, and the whole Dominion story arc began during the first year of B5. Of course the DS9 treatment was not so integral: it had stories, while B5 was a story.

#74 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2011, 01:35 PM:

I interpreted the "Non Action Delenn" moments as her coming from a sheltered background. Most of the human cast is in the military, Londo has survived Centauri politcs, and I don't know much about G'Kar's background but I'll bet there's violence in it. Delenn is practically the only civilian among the main characters (Vir is another, and I think he behaves pretty much the same way when unexpected violence breaks out).

I think there's a larger point about stereotypes -- that it's not really a stereotype if some people fit it and some don't, because that's just people being different from each other -- but I'm not sure I can express it adequately.

#75 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2011, 03:26 PM:

Keith Kisser @ 62... Instead, we had well, Voyager. A spaceship lost in an unfriendly part of the galaxy (...) a Borg in a Catsuit.

And Captain Proton. I liked how the Waterheater Robot's limbs went limp when it got too close to 7 of 9.

#76 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2011, 07:40 PM:

@#69 ::: Curmudgeon


Like I said, Delenn does have her strong moments--like dealing with Sinclair--but she does fall so far into gendered trope land often enough that those incidents stick in my mind very prominently.

You're giving a gendered ethno-centric reading of a completely alien culture.

It is not my reading.

She reaches for a weapon, rather than collapsing when presented with what is clearly a nightmare horrific being, to her.

I'm not going to venture into spoiler territory--but I think by season three, even with an ethnocentric cultural interpretation, the data won't support you.

#77 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 02:08 AM:

Lisa @76

Curmudgeon is actually giving a gendered ethno-centric reading of a "culture" created entirely by people with the same gender binary and coming from, functionally, the same culture. No aliens (complete or otherwise) were consulted in creating the character of Delenn.

As such, reading Delenn as a product of Earth-based Western culture, and reading her as female-coded, and comparing her to Earth-Western gender stereotypes, is indeed appropriate.

It is possible for someone carrying our cultural baggage to create an alien culture that doesn't carry the same baggage, but to my eye, that is something you'd have to prove, not something you get automatically just from declaring them an alien.

Do you feel that Delenn is not coded as a woman? (sure, a Minbari woman rather than a human woman, but nevertheless within the gender binary we apply to humans but wouldn't apply to nonhumanoid aliens even if they had similar reproductive habits.)

Alternately, do you feel that the negative actions that JMS has written for Delenn are cultural rather than gendered? Do you see examples of male Minbari playing out the same roles?

If not, perhaps it's an alien culture but it is one to which the creators have applied their own cultural gender binary.

Myself, I'd say it's pretty indisputable that male and female Minbari are coded as men and women. I'd be much more likely to accept an argument that the damsel-in-distress thing is being applied to Delenn as a species- or caste-wide cultural weakness rather than being specific to female Minbari, but I wouldn't personally advance that argument.

By analogy, here: If I wrote a book wherein I made my orcs very dark-skinned, gave them all dreadlocks, and had them speak in a recognizable dialect, someone might point out that this was kinda racist. If I responded that my book wasn't about Earth and that my orcs just evolved that way, it would be quite correctly pointed out that this was bullshit. I wrote the book. The orcs didn't evolve: I invented them. Of course some of my baggage goes into that invention.

#78 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 03:53 AM:

Uh oh....

#79 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 08:24 AM:

Londo, Delenn, and (eventually?) G'kar: they all have alien sidekicks who are different. G'kar's development is different to that of Delenn and Londo, and he can contrast with himself in ways which the others cannot. But for all three we see them in a different way to how we see aliens such as Spock. They're not presented as the only example, and we're shown how others are different, and neither Londo not Vir are quite human. Yes, we do get to see the occasional "other Vulcan", but even an episode such as Amok Time has that reset switch. We are left to always judge Spock against humans, and almost never against his own standards.

#80 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 08:29 AM:

"Live long and prosper, Spock."
"I shall do neither for I have killed my captain and my friend."

#81 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 08:33 AM:

ROT13 on a key point, because I'm not sure that it's more than hinted at in Soul Hunter: Qryraa naq gur Fbhy Uhagre: fur oryvrirf va ervapneangvba, juvyr ur gencf fbhyf. Guvf vf n cerggl znwbe pbasyvpg bs ivrjn. Is there an element of PTSD in Delenn's behaviour as well?

#82 ::: Lisa Spagenberg ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 02:24 PM:

Devin@77

Myself, I'd say it's pretty indisputable that male and female Minbari are coded as men and women. I'd be much more likely to accept an argument that the damsel-in-distress thing is being applied to Delenn as a species- or caste-wide cultural weakness rather than being specific to female Minbari, but I wouldn't personally advance that argument.

You would be wrong; the Minbari do not identify Delenn as primarily female; they identify her, as she does herself, by her name, her title, and her caste and family. They identify other Minbari by title, name, caste and family.

The assertion that Delenn is behaving as a female is one that I am arguing is not based on her own identification, nor that of her peers, and that seems to rely on ethnocentric assumptions about female roles and behaviors.

You will no doubt remember the Inquisitor demanding Delenn identify herself, and her responses. You may also remember that we do not have evidence that supports human child-rearing practices, for instance, among the Minbari--we have Delenn noting that her father was her primary care-giver in childhood, for instance.

When other Minbari object to Delenn, they do so based on her genetic identity, and her caste, and her personal history; not her sex. They don't really seem to place sex in the same role-based hierarchies that the humans around them do.

See, for instance, Delenn's discomfort with human grooming practices regarding hair and her desire to dress as a female human, for Sheridan. These are practices that do not seem to be culturally hers--note that Minbari clothing does not appear to be gendered.

#83 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 03:28 PM:

Lisa @82

Hm. Your points about what's happening inside the fourth wall are well-taken. I do think it's equally important to consider that Minbari are fictions created for a human audience.

I was thinking of "coded as men and women" in terms of creators and audience, not of what's happening inside the show. After all, everybody knew it was gonna be mostly humans, mostly Western, and mostly Anglophone, in the audience. They had plenty of opportunity to write something that audience would read in a certain way, or in a different way.

You're right that we're given evidence that Minbari don't regard Delenn in the same way that the audience is likely to (and thanks for expanding on that point. I hadn't properly considered it.) But I think you're wrong to disregard the audience as an important part of the equation here: the show was intended for this very audience, and the creators had a variety of tools available to address the way Delenn codes to that audience.

Another example: I don't think Vulcans really have much sexism going on, and I suspect we aren't shown Vulcans treating Vulcan females any differently from males (though I don't watch enough Star Trek to really know). Does that erase the weirdness of the ST tradition of sexy Vulcan(/Klingon/Borg/etc) ladies? No, of course not, the writers and costumers know exactly what they're doing even if the scripts don't describe it as such.

(Delenn's portrayal is much much better than that, of course.)

Your comments on Delenn's remarks about Minbari culture are well-taken, particularly where she explicitly addresses that she knows humans code her differently.

#84 ::: Marc Mielke ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 05:35 PM:

81: That's what I was trying to get at, but it's even worse than that:

(so THAT'S how you do it!)

Gur Fbhy Uhagre pbhyq unir cbgragvnyyl gevrq gb xvyy Fvapynve naq pbyyrpg Inyra'f fbhy, cbffvoyl ceriragvat Inyra sebz rire univat rkvfgrq naq ergebnpgviryl tvivat gur tnynml gb gur Funqbjf.

#85 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 05:44 PM:

Just like humans, the Minbari appear to have nerds, Lennier being a prime example, especially the episode where he rebuilt Garibaldi's motorcycle with a non-polluting engine.

#86 ::: Curmudgeon ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 06:13 PM:

@Lisa Spagenberg:

If Delenn was real, looking at her through the lens of Minbari sociology and psychological norms would indeed produce a view of her closer to yours than the view I and others have taken.

However, Delenn isn't real. She's the created product of an American cultural niche--television scifi--designed to be appealing (in a ratings sense) to as much of the western TV scifi audience as possible. It's absolutely fair game to interpret and criticize Delenn from a western cultural perspective because that's the perspective from which the character is designed to be experienced.

In Delenn, we have a female lead who owns the gender loaded traits of following emotionality over rationality when under stress, a predilection for getting captured, and a habit of manipulating the men around her to do what she wants. The fact that most of these traits are justified--in universe--via the sociological and psychological norms of the Minbari doesn't alter my observation that B5 has a female lead who owns the gender loaded traits of following emotionality over rationality when under stress, a predilection for getting captured, and a habit of manipulating the men around her to do what she wants.

These isn't baggage I can overlook simply because JMS structured his universe to attach the bags to broader Minbari cultural traits that are hardly shown as applying to other members of the species.

#87 ::: CCClaudia ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 08:01 PM:

I realize that stories told by and for modern humans have to try really hard to avoid the biases of modern human society, and JMS wasn't trying all that hard to keep Delenn from being tainted by sexism. I'm still very puzzled by part of what Curmudgeon wrote in #59.

Delenn had her moments of competence and glory, but she had a lot more moments of very gendered utter failure. Every time Delenn screws up, she screws up in a way that usually echoes at least one misogynistic stereotype about why women shouldn't be in positions of power. When Delenn succeeds, she does it in a genderless way, but when she fails, she usually fails in a way that's stereotypically female.

What does it mean to succeed in a genderless way? I've never had planets depending on me, but I've been variously succeeding and screwing up in various smaller ways. I'm having trouble thinking of a time I succeeded in an obviously gendered way, and even more trouble thinking of why I might want to. Any failure can be blamed on one stereotype or another. (There are so many, it's horribly easy. Girls are timid, or can't control their tempers. Women don't stand up for themselves, or they're nagging bullies.) Success tends to be credited to the individual. Stereotypes only seem to be brought into a success in order to discredit the successful person.

It looks to me like Delenn's successes counter her weaknesses and failures. It may be that she doesn't have enough strengths and successes to counter them sufficiently. But that's a different sort of problem.

#88 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 08:54 PM:

CCClaudia @87: Well, succeeding in a gendered way means succeeding at a task or in a manner or using tools that are stereotypically the exclusive preserve of one gender.

In Modern Western English-Speaking Society, for example, here are some female-gendered ways to succeed/tasks to succeed at: being empathetic; persuading other people to agree and reconcile; anything to do with cooking, childcare, or cleaning; orchestrating a huge social event; avoiding direct conflict in favor of behind-the-scenes negotiation that makes it look as if the subjects agreed to do it on their own (sometimes even to them). Yes, that includes a lot of diplomacy, and there are lots of male Modern Western English-Speaking diplomats out here in the real world, but it depends how it is portrayed whether it comes off as having 'girl cooties' to it or not.

A few male-gendered ways/tasks: violence/battle; direct, outright conflict, especially including dominance contestation; using physical prowess; sports; computer hacking and other technical competence.

Most of the ways Delenn succeeds on-screen are either stereotypically female (some, it must be admitted, because she's acting like a diplomat, and not doing it in the confrontational/angry way G'Kar and Londo sometimes do) or not in either category particularly, therefore perhaps callable 'genderless'.

I think something I'm seeing come out of this discussion is that a lot of people are annoyed that Delenn spends way more time doing things that come off as 'feminine' than any other Minbari we see, of any titular sex.

#89 ::: Curmudgeon ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2011, 10:39 PM:

@CCClaudia:

What I mean by gendered/genderless success and/or failure is how badly a character follows any of the fictional tropes and real-world prejudices about how women and female characters are 'supposed' to behave.

By way of example, I would call a gendered success to be a female character getting a promotion by offering sexual favors to her male boss while a genderless success would be getting ahead on merit or in some other way that is gender-irrelevant.

Delenn's successes count to me as genderless because those sections of the plot could have been written in exactly the same way if she had been male. For example, her gender had no bearing on how she put together the ISA treaty or how she commanded her ships in battle.

Delenn's failures, on the other hand, count to me as very gendered because they run a 16 lane highway into terrain covered with sexist baggage. One need not look far to find arguments and tropes to the end that women are unsuited to positions of power because they are too emotional to handle crises[1]. Both of Delenn's catastrophic failures ('no mercy' and very nearly losing the galaxy to the Shadows when Sheridan went walkabout) came about because she cracked emotionally under pressure. These are gendered failures because they echo the sexist trope about female emotional irrationality and would have been written very differently if Delenn had been male.


N.B. I'm not calling JMS a misogynist. Absent any knowledge of his personal views, the worst I can accuse him of is not paying as much attention to the implications of his scripts as he should have.


[1] Note, for example, the flak Hillary Clinton took for crying during the last US presidential campaign.

#90 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 12:11 AM:

Curmudgeon @ 89 ...
Both of Delenn's catastrophic failures ('no mercy' and very nearly losing the galaxy to the Shadows when Sheridan went walkabout) came about because she cracked emotionally under pressure. These are gendered failures because they echo the sexist trope about female emotional irrationality and would have been written very differently if Delenn had been male.

I'm curious Curmudgeon. Do you consider Garibaldi crawling back into the bottle to be a gendered failure?

Personally, from what you've written thus far, I'm getting the distinct impression that you've got a particular bugaboo going, and are trying to shoehorn the character and the story into matching.

#91 ::: shadowsong ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 12:21 AM:

xeger @90: I definitely consider Garibaldi's alcoholism to be a gendered failure. Contrast it with Battlestar Galactica, where Ellen's alcoholism was done in a hyper-sexual way to make it feminine, Starbuck's alcoholism was a part of how she didn't follow gender norms, and Saul's alcoholism seemed to be a standard (masculine) depiction.

I'm oversimplifying, of course, but I think alcoholism as a stereotypically masculine failure would stand up to scrutiny.

#92 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 01:06 AM:

shadowsong @ 91 ...
xeger @90: I definitely consider Garibaldi's alcoholism to be a gendered failure. Contrast it with Battlestar Galactica, where Ellen's alcoholism was done in a hyper-sexual way to make it feminine, Starbuck's alcoholism was a part of how she didn't follow gender norms, and Saul's alcoholism seemed to be a standard (masculine) depiction.

I'm oversimplifying, of course, but I think alcoholism as a stereotypically masculine failure would stand up to scrutiny.

Hm. I don't know that I'd agree with that -- take Blanche from Streetcar, for example...

... but the direction I was heading in (and clearly didn't express well) was about cracking emotionally under pressure, and having bad results. In Garibaldi's case, he crawls back into the bottle -- but it's still the same basic failure mode...

#93 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 01:14 AM:

xeger, #92: And when I saw the "No mercy" episode, what I took away from it was that Delenn was young. I could very easily have seen a male intern of the same age and experience level, looking at the corpse of his beloved mentor, having exactly the same reaction.

It can also be argued that pretty much everything she did after the end of the Earth/Minbari War was her attempt to atone for that mistake. That's not a gendered reaction at all.

And then there's Lennier... who also "cracks emotionally under pressure" in the last episode, but who has far less excuse.

#94 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 01:20 AM:

I've been watching "Believers"...is Franklin's failure gendered? Was his belief that he knows better than the parents, and that if he just goes on and does what he wants, everyone will see that he was right, stereotypically masculine?

#95 ::: crazysoph ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 01:31 AM:

abi @ 94 --

I see Franklin's failure in "Believers" as a mark of his profession and the paradigm within which it works, rather than because he's a man. It's interesting to consider his action then in light of what he does further down the road. (At which point Garibaldi terms Franklin's behavior "hysterical.")

Crazy(and so glad you're doing these essays on your re-viewing!)Soph

PS hello again! Just because!

#96 ::: shadowsong ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 01:45 AM:

xeger @92: Ah, I see. Hm. I guess I would argue that it's a combination of failure type and expression that our society considers masculine or feminine. Violence and withdrawal seem to be the "masculine" ways to deal with emotional trauma; weeping and clinging are the "feminine" ways.

I want to take this further, but since I haven't seen the episode in years it wouldn't be very productive. I'll come back to this if I have a chance to actually watch it. :)

#97 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 02:01 AM:

Curmudgeon,

I think it would be very helpful in reducing the amount that I, at least, am bothered by this discussion if you could list some behaviors that you'd consider feminine-gendered and don't scorn. Because everything I've seen you cite as feminine is also negative, even the stuff you label as successful.

In a real world where masculine is considered the default and feminine is the variant, what this says to me is that the ways that I am not a man are weaknesses. I'm not sure I'm willing to be in the same room as that argument.

(Also of interest would be "masculine" behaviors that you do think less of.)

Right now, you're reminding me of the old truism in Scotland: Olympic athletes from north of Berwick are British when they win, but devolve to being Scottish when they lose.

#98 ::: Curmudgeon ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 03:53 AM:

@Abi,

I'm not willing to get into a discussion over my views on real-world gender traits or my views on positive human traits. This isn't the place and what I think on that subject is beside the point.

I have been arguing a certain character analysis. If the content of my argument is making you uncomfortable about my views on gender then I fear something I have said has not been articulated as I would have liked.

The reason I'm only picking out feminine traits I consider scornful is because I'm trying to make the point that Delenn was saddled with too many traits that are both undesirable and are traditionally associated--both in fiction and among real world bigots--with femininity. I'm talking exclusively about stereotypes. I'm saying Delenn is far too similar to the stereotypes sexist bigots have about women leaders for my comfort.

I'm saying that there is too much social baggage (mostly but not entirely among the overtly bigoted) about women being too emotionally unstable to be in public office that writing a character who fits this stereotype to a T is a bad idea.

I'm saying that the emotionality which underpins Delenn's mistakes strikes too close to the nerve of bigoted arguments about why women shouldn't be in government. I call these failures gendered because Delenn failed for what are stereotypically female traits and because there's absolutely no way her mistakes would have been written the same way if the character was male.

I'm absolutely not making an argument that 'not-male' behaviors are wrong or inferior. I'm making an argument that sexist stereotypes about women in power don't have a legitimate place in contemporary fiction.

I don't know what else to say because I'm not seeing why my position is making you uncomfortable.

Does this help?

#99 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 04:38 AM:

Curmudgeon@98

I was a little tweaked when your example of a gendered promotion strategy was sleeping with the boss, while your genderless example was merit (rather than something equally underhanded like sabotaging a rival or claiming credit for others' work).

I don't think you meant it like that. But you said something that (probably accidentally) carried a nasty implication.

I can't speak for Abi*, but my slight discomfort comes not at all from your position, but rather from the implications of your examples.

*Which is fortunate, because it's a good day when I can muster enough time and eloquence to for all my own thoughts.

#100 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 09:57 AM:

Curmudgeon @98:

Breaking my reaction out into steps:

  1. I don't agree with your thesis.

    I don't think Delenn is overall a failure, ineffective because of her emotions, or otherwise fitting the stereotype of somneone bad for public office.

    As a balanced character, she does fail from time to time. But I don't think the ways she fails are generally specifically feminine. It's been a while since I've seen the series, but I find myself unwilling to accept your summary of what happens later; it really does not match what I do remember. The scene with the PPG in "And the Sky Full of Stars" strikes me as more typical than the one in "Soul Hunter". You see it the other way round.

    So. For that, I'll suspend judgement, collect evidence, and analyze later.

  2. I find that I don't trust your analysis of gendered behavior modes. And this is where your view of real-world gender traits comes into play.
  3. When your example of feminine success techniques, even in stereotype, is "sleeping your way to the top" rather than, say, "collaborative decision-making" or "hyper-organization", I see a sign that you're not using the same metrics as I am. What you identify as a gender-neutral success strategy or good characteristic may be, in my book, a gendered one, leading me to conclude that JMS is casting her as "female all the time" rather than "female when she fails".

    (As Lisa points out, this is not good writing of aliens, who do not necessarily grow up swimming in our prejudices and expectations. But at least it's not misogynist.)

  4. As a product of the above, and because (I confess) I'm fond of Delenn as a character, I rather feel like you're unjustly casting her into the role of over-emotional female. It's probably not fair for me to let that bother me, but I do find that gendered accusations have the power to make me feel uncomfortable. There's always a feeling that I may be the next one in the crosshairs.

In many ways, that last point is the reason for my comment 97. I'm asking you to reassure me that your values about gender roles are reasonable, that you're not going to point that damaging accusation at me. That this is a safe conversation for me to be in.

#101 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2011, 05:12 PM:

What if the use of stereotypes is (sometimes) a good storyteller's tool? By presenting Delenn as "female" in various ways familiar to the audience, JMS gives them a bridge to understand other parts of her personality and actions which don't map so neatly to human expectations.

How would a TV show present a totally non-stereotypical character? (And, no, just reversing stereotypes isn't enough; how do you present someone with no characteristics in common with any other people? Because, ultimately, a stereotype is just a characteristic that many people believe applies to a large group of people...)

#102 ::: Braxis ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2011, 04:26 PM:

To me, it always felt like Delenn's femininity was a was a product of her caste, rather than her gender. Lennier also portrayed many 'feminine' character traits.

The 'male' role on Minbar is taken by the Warrior caste. I can't remember if a female warrior ever gets any screen time, but I would fully expect her to be as aggressive and impetuous as her male compatriots.

I think Lennier and Delenn could have swapped roles and the story would have been the same.

JMS certainly treated the gender split differently for the three main alien races. Females as property with the Centauri, which seems to fit in well with the whole Centauri personality. There is no evidence of a gender difference in the Narn race which, if you assume an egg laying, non-nuturing, evolutionary path, makes science-fictional sense.

#103 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2011, 05:24 PM:

I can't remember if a female warrior ever gets any screen time, but I would fully expect her to be as aggressive and impetuous as her male compatriots.

She certainly was.

#104 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2011, 05:36 PM:

I've been watching "Believers"...is Franklin's failure gendered?

What failure? He saves the patient's life. The patient is later murdered, but I don't see how that's *Franklin's* failure -- even if you can argue that someone should have foreseen and stopped it, that's Garibaldi's job.

#105 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2011, 05:39 PM:

chris, 104: You mean the child whose soul had been destroyed by the interfering, know-it-all human, who refused to listen to reason? On her planet, Franklin was her murderer.

#106 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 12:32 AM:

Historical footnote for anyone who happens on this thread later:

For more discussion of Franklin's decision in "Believers" and its consequences, see the post Babylon 5: Kobayashi Maru.

#107 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 07:19 AM:

Paul A @106:

Thanks for the note. I should remember to do that for later "themed" posts, too, particularly the one on faith and religion that's coming up.

#108 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2011, 11:08 AM:

I watched the first 3 episodes of B5 for the first time last night, and was not impressed. I didn't absolutely hate it, though I did hate bits of it. The premise strikes me as ridiculous: why should B5 be the "last, best hope" of the universe? Why should human beings be in charge? Does that mean we've stopped killing each other at home? Why? Also, I keep wanting the show to jump away from standard TV tropes, and it doesn't. For example: why are the Centauri women so painfully skinny? Why are all the women on whom the camera lingers skinny? Are there any fat sexy "females" in the series? In the universe? I bet not. (Happy to be proved wrong.)

I like Londo, though. I like the dialogue he's given. And I like the physical station: bright corners, dark corners.

Does it get better?

#109 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2011, 11:10 AM:

Are there any fat sexy "females" in the series?

Majel Barrett as a Centauri wasn't rail-thin.

#110 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2011, 05:39 PM:

She wasn't really sexy, either, though.

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Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.