Our reviews of Babylon 5: The Complete First Season (published November 26th, 2002), Babylon 5: The Complete Fourth Season (published February 20th, 2004), Babylon 5: The Complete Fifth Season (published May 24th, 2004), and Babylon 5: The Movie Collection (published October 13th, 2004) are also available.
"I really ought to watch this show."—Jerry Doyle
January, 2259. Babylon 5 is in turmoil. Commander Sinclair (Michael O'Hare) has been recalled and taken up a new position as ambassador to Minbar. Security Chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) is still in a coma; Minbari ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan) is still in a cocoon. G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas), ambassador of the Narn Regime, scours the Galactic Rim in search of dark legends, while his hated adversary, Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) tries to keep his sinister new allies a secret. And Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) tries to keep the station from tearing itself apart in the power vacuum.
A shadow is about to fall on Earth's last, best hope for peace.
Note: The following discussion of Season 2 contains some spoilers for the season as part of the analysis, although revelations about future events in the series are kept to a minimum.
The second season of J. Michael Straczynski's space opera Babylon 5 would be its true litmus test. Any show might be forgiven a lot in its first season, as the cast sorts out their characters, as the plot starts to take shape. While JMS promised great things from his five-year story arc, Season 1 seemed disconnected at best. Was that seemingly important scene we just saw a clue, or just arbitrary? Is that character important, or somebody we will never see again? If Season 1 was the "introduction" to a five-part novel, as JMS insisted it was, it often seemed to go in too many different directions to give the audience a sense that there was a real structure at work. But by the end of the season, things started to shape up. The actors improved; the crucial plot threads began to stand out.
And then suddenly, it was all thrown up in the air. The cliffhanger of Season 1 turned out to be more perilous than originally intended. With the departure of series lead Michael O'Hare, Straczynski faced the real possibility that the entire arc might collapse in confusion. Worse, he chose to bring aboard what most casual observers considered a fairly lightweight actor as lead: Bruce Boxleitner, who grinned his way through the less-than-epic Scarecrow and Mrs. King.
So everyone narrowed his or her eyes at "Points of Departure," in which cheerful orange juice junkie John Sheridan takes over the station, as a rogue Minbari warship comes looking for trouble. Sure, Boxleitner was a welcome and relaxed addition to the cast, but did he have the necessary gravitas for the war ahead? It would take a few more episodes to find out. "Revelations" was mostly a way to shake out various subplots from last season. "The Geometry of Shadows" only gave hints of the coming crisis through the presence of the mysterious techno-mages (whom I never felt really worked in the series, even when JMS brought one into the short-lived Crusade), led by the always imposing Michael Ansara. Oddly, the b-plot in "Geometry of Shadows," which seemed like mere comedy relief (the dimwitted Drazi fight over green and purple sashes) at the time, now resonates as a microcosm of the coming war, in that Straczynski may be suggesting how arbitrary the sides really are—although that will not become apparent until Season 4.
By the mid-point of the season, and certainly by Sheridan's solo adventure in "All Alone in the Night" (he gets kidnapped by naughty, probe-happy aliens), Boxleitner proved he could shift gears from grinning boy scout to angry avenger. Later, Sheridan would evolve even further as a character, growing into a true hero, even as the purple-clad clown Londo Mollari transformed during Season 2 into a dark monster.
Season 2 was not without its duds, usually the episodes that did not come from the pen of JMS. In "A Distant Star," Russ Tamblyn is a deep space explorer lost in hyperspace. "The Long Dark" is a warmed-over Star Trek plot (sleeper ship houses a monster) amusing only due to Dwight Schultz, who plays, well, the same funny psycho he always plays (as opposed to Brad Dourif, who will later show up to play the same creepy psycho he always plays). "GROPOS" features every military training movie cliché you can think of—the cocky veteran and the nervous recruit, the gruff but stubborn commander, the bar fight—buoyed only by a surefooted Paul Winfield as Dr. Franklin's father. Only Peter David turns in standout episodes from the non-JMS pack. "Soul Mates" is an amusing diversion revolving around Londo's three wives (in a little riff on King Lear's "which one of you loves me the most" routine) and Talia's seedy ex-husband. Plus, Delenn has hormonal trouble. "There All Honor Lies" spotlights yet another humdrum "character is framed for a crime" plot, but succeeds due to strong parts for sidekicks Lennier (Bill Mumy) and Vir (Stephen Furst) and a cute subplot about merchandising the B5 universe. Look for the jab at the show's competing "Deep Space Franchise."
Of course, Babylon 5 was on the ball when it could turn Trek plots on their heads, like in "Confessions and Lamentations," where a fatal disease (yet another AIDS metaphor) does not get cured by the clever doctor at the end, or "Knives," where the usual alien possession plot seems rather more ambiguous.
Curiously, "Knives," in which Sheridan hallucinates the death of his wife Anna, seems to come naturally before the crucial "In the Shadow of Z'Ha'Dum," even though the two episodes are included here in the order originally run (that is, backwards). Here in "Z'Ha'Dum," we see the plot threads start to come together: Sheridan's backstory connects to the Mephistophelean Mr. Morden (Ed Wasser), whose grip on Londo tightens by the moment. From this point on, nearly every episode would be tied directly to the various extended subplots—all written entirely by Straczynski himself (until Neil Gaiman penned an episode in Season 5).
Of course, this brings to light one of the weakest aspects of the show's second season: its wealth of dead-ends. Straczynski has always likened the structure of Babylon 5 to a novel. In his introduction to this six-disc set, he refers to the second season as the "rising action," following the traditional narratological model. But a novel is usually a one-writer enterprise, and narrative red herrings can be easily dealt with (assuming the writer is competent). Series television is a group project. Although Straczynski had a great deal of control over the series—including writing most of the episodes himself—the dynamics of a large scale project with so many people…well, sometimes things did not work out as originally planned. To cover himself, JMS worked from an outline, prepared to change the story as need be to accommodate sudden changes. These "backdoors" had already allowed him to drop three major characters (Dr. Kyle, Lt. Commander Takashima, and telepath Lyta Alexander) between the pilot film and Season 1, transferring their character arcs to others.
The first make-or-break test of the "backdoor" strategy was the replacement of the series' leading man. As already noted, Jeffrey Sinclair moved offstage to complete his arc, making only a cameo in the second season and leaving the hero role to John Sheridan. The suits at Warner Brothers also insisted on JMS adding a hotshot starfury pilot to the show. Lt. Warren Keffer (Robert Rusler) took up space for a few episodes, until Straczynski could find an appropriate way to kill him off. Of course, the less said about Na'Toth, G'Kar's assistant, the better. Replaced in Season 2 by a different actress (Mary Kay Adams), she only appeared a couple of times before vanishing without explanation until a brief appearance in Season 5. But characters (and their performers) were not the only cause of narrative glitches. Looking for a way to make Sheridan more complex early on, Straczynski made his new hero a member of a secret government conspiracy ("Hunter, Prey"), not to be confused with another secret government conspiracy called "Bureau 13" that shows up in a single episode ("Spider in the Web") and never gets mentioned again.
But the most problematic loose end in Season 2 involves the departure of series regular Andrea Thompson. Although the story was grooming telepath Talia Winters for a major part down the road, Thompson was dissatisfied with her lack of screen time in Season 2. Her marriage to Jerry Doyle was apparently no hindrance to her desire for advancement. "Divided Loyalties" contrives to dump Talia from the story, giving Thompson room to join the enemy, that is, NYPD Blue. Later, she would join the real shadow empire as a newsreader for CNN. Talia's enhanced psi abilities and growing suspicions about Psi Corps would be handed off to the most unlikely of replacements: Patricia Tallman as Lyta Alexander, the very person Thompson replaced after the pilot. Lyta would not pick up one part of Talia's arc however: her bisexual relationship with Susan Ivanova, which the show all but spells out. Unfortunately, Talia's departure, which could have opened the door to another fine villain later on, became another narrative dead end.
No matter, the show had plenty of excellent villains during the second season to keep our heroes busy. The smarmy Mr. Morden, who always seemed like the most evil car salesman in the galaxy, lured Londo Mollari deeper into his web. Londo, touched by the Shadows, became more sinister himself, even starting to wear more black (from "Acts of Sacrifice" on) to reflect his inner corruption. His loss of control would only be hastened by the political machinations of Lord Refa (William Forward), his supposed Centauri co-conspirator.
As the Shadows grew in power, Earth turned progressively fascistic under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Peace and its Nightwatch flunkies. Earth's political problems would explode in Season 3 with almost as much force as the Shadow War. And certainly, you cannot count out one of the best villains in the history of science fiction television, psi cop Alfred Bester (Walter Koenig). Although his first appearance during Season 1 made only a small impression, he breaks out in "A Race Through Dark Places" as our heroes' most dangerous adversary, here tracking an "underground railroad" for telepaths. Psi Corps would even get a cute "commercial" during the clever parody "And Now for a Word," a 48 Hours riff which Straczynski would pen a heavy-handed sequel to later in the series.
The most important subplot of Season 2 finally reaches its full form by the ninth episode, "The Coming of Shadows," after which JMS titled the entire season. Babylon 5 has always risen above its science fiction television kin by virtue of its serious approach to politics. "The Coming of Shadows," which deservedly snared Babylon 5 its first of two back-to-back Hugos, is justifiably included in Straczynski's own book on screenwriting. The dialogue crackles in a way that is, as Lord Refa says, "fiery but dignified, elegant but strong." The theme here, one of the key themes of the entire series, is free will. Can the Centauri emperor, visiting Babylon 5 as his health rapidly fails him, choose to change the bloody course of his people, or are the forces of history arrayed against him? Can G'Kar turn away from his own self-destruction? Is Sheridan really "part of something bigger," and how much control does he have over his own part in the coming crisis? And Londo, the most tragic figure in the series? He states openly that he "has no choice," dreaming of his own shameful destiny—and this only leads him to make the most dreadful choices of all.
The brutal war between the Narn and Centauri would take up much of the rest of Season 2, climaxing in "The Long Twilight Struggle." Londo's shattered expression as he watches the final savage assault on Narn is perhaps the single most moving image in the entire series, and in this episode, as throughout the entire show, Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas show why they are listed in each week's credits as featured performers. The fall of Narn, however, would only be the beginning of the real trouble. The final two episodes of the season are warnings of things to come. In "Comes the Inquisitor," utility alien actor Wayne Alexander gets to work without prosthetics as a human agent of the Vorlons, giving us our first suspicions that these mysterious beings may not be harbingers of candy and teddy bears, but "a universe of majesty and terror that you could never imagine." In "The Fall of Night," all the major subplots for the next season are laid out: Centauri aggression threatens the station while Earth talks appeasement, the Ministry of Peace tightens its grip, and Kosh reveals at least one secret about the Vorlons—and everyone gets the entirely wrong impression.
Like the Season 1 set, Warner Brothers has packaged Season 2 of Babylon 5 on six discs with a modest amount of extra material. While I was probably too lenient about the transfer on the Season 1 set, I am becoming increasingly disenchanted with Warner Brothers. Some footage in several episodes is unnecessarily grainy (probably due to the low budget production), special effects shots are often badly mastered, and the crucial "The Coming of Shadows" is even full of scratches. Yes, this is low-budget television show that had to economize to stay on the air, but the condition of some of this material is clearly not the fault of the original source.
As far as the supplements are concerned: the whole affair is introduced by J. Michael Straczynski and company on Disc One. Notice that Claudia Christian and Andrea Thompson both show up for interviews quite cheerfully, suggesting that there has been some reconciliation since both were dropped from the series. JMS offers two commentary tracks, for "In the Shadow of Z'Ha'Dum" and "The Fall of Night," both pretty straightforward. He does not have much backstage gossip, since he admits he spent much of the time in his office pounding out scripts. He does talk a bit about the cast changes—why Andrea Thompson left, how Jeff Conaway (as security officer Zack Allen) ended up on the show—but mostly he discusses points of story structure and theme. Much livelier is the commentary track for "The Geometry of Shadows," featuring Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, and Jerry Doyle. They tease one another mercilessly, mock the funny accents of the characters, and generally have a great time. I would love to hear more group tracks like this in future seasons.
Disc Six is where Warner Brothers puts the rest of the extras. There are two featurettes: "Building Babylon," detailing how episodes were planned out, designed, filmed, and then sent to post-production for the special effects, and "Shadows and Dreams," in which JMS and cronies talk about their two Hugo awards. As with the first season set, there is a "Universe of Babylon 5" text archive, this time hiding one of the notorious staff-created blooper reels that Straczynski always warned us at conventions not to buy bootleg.
Babylon 5 has always been less about what the future might really be like than how we choose the future we desire. As Straczynski has remarked repeatedly, this is a show about responsibility and our place in history. As Emperor Turhan (Turhan Bey) states in "The Coming of Shadows," "The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us. And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that terrible in-between." Season 2 is driven by choices and consequences, from John Sheridan's growing sense that Earth is taking a wrong turn to Londo's Faustian pact with the Shadows.
While the first season had its weak spots, Season 2 is on a par with any single season of any of B5's science fiction kin. And with Straczynski taking over full time writing duties, the next two seasons would steamroller over every other science fiction show on television, with the biggest battles, the most riveting drama, and the most interesting and complex characters of any of its kin. Star Trek may have always run hot and cold from season to season, but from Season 2 to the end of Season 4, Babylon 5 was red hot.
Warner Brothers is subjected to the tortures of a Vorlon inquisitor for their treatment of a landmark in science fiction television. JMS, cast, and crew are acquitted of all charges.
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