Saturday, March 6, 2010

B5 Season 3

Season 3 of Babylon 5, titled "Point of No Return," is the one with the opening voice-over saying: "The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed. But, in the Year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last, best hope… for victory. The year is 2260. The place: Babylon 5." Actually the year was from November 1995 to October 1996, and the place was a TV network that I never watched, because I can't remember having ever seen any of these episodes before my recent DVD marathon. It's too bad, really. I can picture myself, then at the end of my undergraduate career, being an avid follower of the show as it reached a major turning point.

For this is the year in which Babylon 5 took a stand against the darkness encroaching on earth and the rest of the galaxy. It's the year the station became an independent state, seceding from the Earth Alliance in protest against President Clark's totalitarian measures. It's the year that revealed ex-Captain Sinclair's destiny as a legendary Minbari hero, the year we first glimpsed the cruel fate of Londo and G'Kar as the future Centauri emperor and his one-eyed majordomo. It's the year Sheridan confronts his destiny on the Shadow world of Z'ha'dum, and in which the old Kosh dies and a new and nastier Kosh takes his place. It's a year of prophecies and portents, battles and betrayals, and Dr. Franklin's mystical "walkabout" following his detox from stim addiction. And finally, it's the year of a poignant gesture of goodwill between this franchise and its chief competitor, Star Trek.

"Matters of Honor" opens the season by introducing the regular character of Marcus Cole: a British-accented, Minbari-trained "Ranger," pictured here as played by Jason Carter. It also introduces the White Star, a new ship jointly developed by the Minbari and the Vorlons, and crewed by human and Minbari Rangers. The White Star, now at Sheridan's disposal, will prove to be a key weapon in the battle to push back the darkness that has been spreading across the galaxy. The Earthforce intelligence agent who visits B5 to investigate the shadow vessel (photographed by the late Warren Keffer at the end of Season 2) is played by Tucker Smallwood, whose other sci-fi roles include guest appearances on Star Trek: Voyager, Enterprise, Space: Above & Beyond, The X Files, and Millennium.

"Convictions" introduces the recurring character of Brother Theo, the prior of an order of monks devoted to recording all the names of God - including alien concepts of Him - and who support themselves by offering specialized services such as data analysis. Interestingly, Theo is played by the same Louis Turenne who originated the role of Draal, later played by John Schuck. The arrival of Brother Theo's monks is part of a mass pilgrimage to B5 in the wake of Kosh's public manifestation at the end of Season 2. Also on the menu is a series of bombings carried out by action film maven (and 3-time Trek guest) Patrick Kilpatrick. This plot puts Londo in the interesting position of owing his life to Lennier, and leads to an intense scene where Sheridan becomes the bomber's hostage. Rounding out the guest cast is Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa of Mortal Combat, etc., as the Earthforce security guy who leads the hunt for the bomber.

"A Day in the Strife" guest stars Stephen Macht, a fine actor with a distinguished television career, whose son happens to be movie star Gabriel Macht. The elder Macht had ongoing roles on Cagney & Lacey, One Life to Live, and General Hospital, and was considered for the role of Captain Picard on TNG. Here he dives into a sea of latex and emerges as Na'Far, the Centauri occupation's official Narn representative to B5. As G'Kar's most serious rival for leadership of the station's Narn population, Macht creates one of the series' most distinctive and memorable Narn characters. Accompanying Na'Far as his bodyguard is Ta'Lon (Marshall Teague), previously seen (but unnamed) in Season 2, and destined to take on a recurring role as one of G'Kar's most loyal followers. This is also the episode where Vir gets promoted as the Centauri ambassador to Minbar, where an alien probe threatens to destroy the station, and where Garibaldi attempts to intervene in Dr. Franklin's stim addiction. It's amazing how much they can pack into one hour!

"Passing through Gethsemane" continues Season 3's parade of top-shelf guest actors with Brad Dourif (late of Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and a recurring role on Voyager) playing Brother Edward, a member of Theo's monastic order. Edward is a tragic figure, unaware that his passion for community service is part of an artificial personality programmed into him. For before he became a monk, Brother Edward was the infamous Black Rose Killer, convicted of serial murder and sentenced to "death of personality" -- a telepathic mind-wipe, considered a humane alternative to capital punishment. Memories of his former life begin to resurface in a way that at first suggests Brother Edward is losing his mind. In reality, however, the brother of one of his victims has been setting him up. The outcome is a tear-jerking death scene and an eerie denouement in which Brother Theo gets another young novice...

"Voices of Authority" guest stars Playboy covergirl, mystery novelist, and longtime The Young and the Restless regular Shari Shattuck as the aggressive Julie Musante, the new Political Officer assigned to B5 by the increasingly Orwellian regime back home. I love the scene where, in a private meeting in Sheridan's quarters, Musante presents her naked body to him just as a holographic projection of Ivanova (long story) appears behind her. "You're about to go where everyone has gone before," Ivanova quips in one of the series' funniest digs at Star Trek. Having a "political officer" means doing a delicate dance to keep her from finding out about the command staff's increasing preparedness for a standoff against Earth. Meanwhile, Draal (John Schuck as the Minbari guy who serves as the "central brain" of the Great Machine on Epsilon 3) helps the Rangers track down the First Ones, holdovers from the last war against the Shadows. While her borderline-telepathic brain is plugged into the Great Machine, Ivanova uncovers crucial evidence that President Clark was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate his predecessor.

"Dust to Dust" is the episode where G'Kar gets high on a drug designed by PsiCorps to flush out latent telepaths. An illicit trade of this "dust" had messed up quite a few people on B5, where it is used either as an hallucinogen or as a weapon for mind-rape. Bester (Walter Koenig) comes aboard, allegedly to stop this dust traffic, but really to keep it out of the hands of aliens and in the hands of humans. One alien who buys the dust is G'Kar, who then uses it in a violent assault on Londo. Only a vision in which Kosh appears to him prevents G'Kar from finishing off his old nemesis. The episode ends with a spiritually transformed G'Kar turning himself in and cheerfully accepting a 60-day jail sentence for his crimes.

"Exogenesis" guest-stars the disgusting critter you see here. This is a member of the Vindrizi, a race of beings who burrow into their humanoid hosts and plug into their central nervous system. As Marcus and Stephen investigates the death of one host and the disappearance of another, they at first think -- understandably -- that the Vindrizi are parasites who take over people's bodies, like the creepy-crawlies in the first-season TNG episode "Conspiracy." Ultimately they turn out to be more like the Trill: symbiotes who restore their hosts to perfect health, and who give lost and hopeless people something to live for. The Vindrizi have been roaming the galaxy for thousands of years, passing on their memories to succeeding generations like an ongoing historical record. This is an unusual episode, with some really fun scenes including one in which Marcus, while looking for information on a vanished friend, single-handedly trashes a seedy bar and knocks out everybody in it. Marcus: "Oh, bugger! Now I have to wait until somebody wakes up!"

"Messages from Earth" is yet another episode in which someone comes aboard B5 carrying secrets that the Powers that Be (on Earth) would gladly kill them to keep. This time that someone is Dr. Mary Kirkish, played by Nancy Stafford (late of Matlock), who was part of an archaeological team that discovered a Shadow ship buried on Mars -- and witnessed the arrival of another Shadow ship to dig it out and fly off with it. Now, Kirkish says, another Shadow ship has been found on one of Jupiter's moons, and Earthforce plans to keep it, study it, use it as a weapon, and learn how to build more like it. Because Shadow ships contain organic technology, a human must be plugged into its nerve center before it can fly. Sheridan's White Star only arrives at Jupiter after someone has been plugged into the Shadow ship. That poor person, whoever he is, goes insane and starts shooting everyone in sight. The White Star saves the day by luring the Shadow ship down to crush depth in Jupiter's atmosphere. Then they have to execute an untried maneuver to escape from an Earthforce ship -- and all this while the station's Nightwatch (loyalty police) grows increasingly suspicious.

"Point of No Return" heals the schism between Babylon 5 and Star Trek by bringing on Majel Barrett, widow of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, as a guest star. Here Barrett plays Lady Morella, the widow of the late Centauri Emperor Turhan, who also happens to be a seer. She honors Londo with a state visit to B5, though his real motive in inviting her is to wring a psychic reading out of her. She finally complies, confirming that Londo will be emperor... and so will Vir... one after the other's death. You can imagine the tension between Londo and Vir after they hear this. Meanwhile, orders come from Earth requiring that Nightwatch take over all security operations on B5. News from Earth grows increasingly grim as President Clark dissolves the Senate, declares martial law, and sends troops to crush all opposition. The media is curtailed, resistance fighters like Gen. Hague become fugitives, and the Earth civil war is on.

"Severed Dreams" won the 1997 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. It's an important episode in other ways as well. For example, this is the one where Delenn's "conspiracy of light" comes out in the open, and Sheridan announces B5's secession from the Earth Alliance and the deportation of the Nightwatch. The trigger for this decision is the news that Clark has ordered attacks on the civilian populations of Mars and Proxima 3. Military forces opposed to Pres. Clark have been destroyed except for one ship, the one formerly commanded by Gen. Hague (whose offscreen death resulted from actor Robert Foxworth being double-booked to appear on B5 and DS9 at the same time). Bruce McGill guest-stars as Major Ryan, who assumes command of the Alexander after Hague's death, and whose ship joins B5 in a desperate battle against an attacking Earthforce fleet. Meanwhile, Delenn tries to persuade the Minbari Grey Council to support the side of light in the war that has begun. She fails to do so, in part because the Grey Council's historic balance has been tipped in favor of the Warrior Caste. Delenn breaks up the council and musters a force from the Religious Caste, arriving at B5 just in time to force an imminently-victorious Earth fleet to back down.

"Ceremonies of Light and Dark" features the voice of sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison as "Sparky the Computer," an obnoxious personality program that asserts itself when Garibaldi resets the station's access codes. This storyline is merely comic relief for two much more serious plots. Plot A involves an attempt on Delenn's life by Nightwatch agents hiding out on the station. Her injuries prompt her friends, reluctant to particpate in yet another Minbari ritual, to visit her in the infirmary and deliver the gifts and secrets required by the "rebirth ceremony." What the B5 command staff gives up is their Earthforce uniforms, receiving cool new black duds tailored for them at Delenn's expense. Lennier's secret (confided to Marcus) is that he loves Delenn, though he knows she is destined for Sheridan. Plot B shows Londo becoming gravely concerned about his government's dealings with the Shadows. Having broken off his relationship with Morden, Londo is horrified to learn that Morden has formed an alliance with the ambitious Lord Refa. How far will he go to wean his world of that pernicious influence? As far, it seems, as threatening to poison his sometime friend and co-conspirator.

"Sic Transit Vir" is the episode where Vir meets his wife Lyndisty. Londo has arranged their union as a reward for Vir's valuable service on Minbar. Delicious beyond words is Vir's confusion at being adored by a beauty so far above him. The funniest line of the season, owing as much to Stephen Furst's spot-on delivery as to the words themselves, is: "If kisses could kill, that one would have flattened several small villages." Almost equally funny is the scene where Vir approaches Ivanova for advice on how to pleasure women. The relationship quickly grows more complicated, as Vir's abuse of his authority as emissary to Minbar (to establish an "underground railroad" for captive Narns) is exposed, while Lyndisty turns out to take an all but psychotic enjoyment from seeing Narns executed. This at least explains why Narns keep charging the couple, shouting "Murderer!" In the scene pictured above, Lyndisty is offering Vir a the life of a captured Narn as a wedding gift. Shudder! Unsurprisingly, the couple separates for the time being. Vir is recalled from Minbar, and Sheridan lends his face to the credentials of a fictitious Centauri named "Abrahamo Lincolni."

"A Late Delivery from Avalon" guest-stars Michael York as a new arrival on B5 who claims to be King Arthur, armed with Excalibur, and returned as promised at the hour of his people's greatest need. Seeing as figures from Earth history (such as Jack the Ripper) actually have turned up from time to time, having been abducted and preserved by the Vorlons, there at first seems to be a chance he's the real Arthur -- until Stephen shakes his head and says, "His British accent is too contemporary," and there goes that theory! Actually, "Arthur" turns out to be David McIntyre, gunnery officer of the Earth ship that so tragically botched first contact with the Minbari. Even though he wasn't responsible for the order to fire, "Arthur" is so traumatized with guilt for his role in starting the last war that he makes a mental break and begins gathering knights for a new Round Table. His first recruit, interestingly, is G'Kar. Once the roots of McIntyre's delusion are understood, Delenn convinces him that she is the "Lady of the Lake" and gets him to surrender Excalibur to her. This breaks the delusion, freeing McIntyre to join the Narn resistance and to organize a new order of chivalry.

"Ship of Tears" is the one where Bester proposes an alliance with Babylon 5. Bester believes that telepaths must fight the Shadows who are digging their tentacles into Earth. Instead, PsiCorps is working with the Shadows, butchering renegade telepaths to create half-human, half-machine control units for the Shadows' ships. One of the telepaths so altered is Bester's lover Carolyn. His devotion to her is one of the few signs of human frailty Bester ever shows -- the type of frailty that will eventually motivate him to betray his own people to their deaths so that he can, perhaps, save the woman he loves. This episode explains why there are no Narn telepaths. It introduces the Babylon 5's War Room and the cryo-lockers where 100 hellishly altered telepaths are kept on ice until a cure can be found. And it signals the beginning of open war with the Shadows.

"Interludes and Examinations" is the episode where Sheridan and Kosh come to blows (Kosh wins). It is the episode where Kosh and Sheridan argue over whether the Vorlons should join the fight against the Shadows (Sheridan wins). And it is the episode where Ambassador Kosh dies, cut down by Morden's insectoid Shadow associates. There's a moment of throat-clenching sadness in the line Sheridan's father says in a dream, just before Sheridan wakes up screaming Kosh's name: "As long as you're here, I'll always be here." Meanwhile, Londo is so excited about a return visit by his mistress, former exotic dancer Adira, that he snubs Mr. Morden. When Adira dies of poisoning and Londo believes his rival Lord Refa is to blame, he recruits Morden to help him get revenge. So ends the one brief remission in Londo's otherwise steady descent into darkness. Finally, this is the episode where Stephen admits that he is addicted to stims and resigns from the Medlab.

"War Without End" is the double episode guest-starring Michael O'Hare as once Captain, now Ambassador Sinclair. In the opening scene, "Entil'Zha" Sinclair (a.k.a. "Ranger One") is given a message, addressed to him by name, that Valen supposedly left for him a thousand years ago. Most interestingly, the message is written in Sinclair's own handwriting. Delenn gets a similar, corroborating message. Meanwhile, temporal disturbances are detected in the area where Babylon 4 disappeared, and later reappeared and disappeared again (see Season 1's "Babylon Squared"). Yes, B4 is back again! Sinclair, Sheridan, Ivanova, Marcus, Lennier, and a certain Zathras, one of the caretakers of the Great Machine on Epsilon 3 (again, see "Babylon Squared"), sneak aboard the station and prepare to time-jack it 1,000 years into the past, so that it can serve as a key base for the forces of light in the last war against the Shadows. If they fail, Babylon 5 will soon be destroyed. But the time-jackers have problems. The original crew of B4 is still (again?) making up their mind to evacuate the station before it vanishes. Zathras gets captured and mixed up in the events of "Babylon Squared." Sheridan becomes "unstuck" in time, vanishing and reappearing, catching glimpses of his future fate with Delenn, Londo, and G'Kar. Sinclair falls prey to a time anomaly that causes him to age rapidly, so that his only hope of survival is to go back in time with Babylon 4. In the end, they pull it off, and Sinclair enters the same type of chrysalis that turned Delenn half-human so that, when the forces of light reach B4 in the long-ago, it is not Sinclair but Valen who welcomes them...

"Walkabout" is the Aboriginal term for a type of vision quest on which Stephen embarks as he tries to overcome his addiction to stims. The theory is that if you walk far enough into the wilderness, you will eventually meet yourself. Then the two of you can sit down and have That Talk. In this episode, Stephen's walkabout takes him as far as a nightclub where he falls in love with a sultry singer, who then almost breaks his heart by asking him for drugs. Later he learns that she is terminally ill and only needs the drugs to control her pain. Meanwhile, on the theory that telepaths can jam the control systems of Shadow vessels, Sheridan takes Lyta Alexander on his next White Star run. G'Kar reveals that every alien culture has something similar to Swedish meatballs. More importantly, he drums up alien support for the Shadow war. And the new, but definitely not improved, Vorlon ambassador arrives, insisting on being called Kosh. I knew Kosh. Kosh was a friend of mine. And mister, you're no Kosh!

"Grey 17 Is Missing" involves Garibaldi in an eerie mystery, beginning with a maintenance crewman's disappearance. No sooner does he discover the existence of a hidden level in the Grey Sector than he becomes a prisoner in it. Robert Englund (lately Freddy Krueger in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series and a regular cast member of the original "V") appears as the member of a fruity cult that dwells in Grey 17, waiting for the universe to reabsorb them - typically, through the intestines of a fierce alien creature called the Zarg. Meanwhile, Lennier worries that Neroon (of Minbar's Warrior Caste) may try to assassinate Delenn before she takes office as the new Ranger One. He passes on his concerns to Marcus Cole, who risks his life to stall Neroon while the ceremony takes place. Up to the moment when Garibaldi discovers Level 17, I liked this episode. After that, it went downhill faster than the US 4-man bobsleigh team at the Vancouver Olympics. I don't think I'm alone in believing that this episode was one of Season 3's weakest links. Worthy of note: Time Winters, who appears in this episode and "War Without End" as the Minbari Rathenn, also played one of the first-ever Cardassians on TNG.

"And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place" is the episode where Londo finally deals with the Lord Refa problem. As a feat of Machiavellian treachery it is both chilling and (because the victim is Refa) enjoyable. The final act of Refa's comeuppance plays out on the Narn homeworld while, back on B5, an ecumenical congregation (including Brother Theo, a Baptist preacher, and a rabbi played by Erick Avari) jump and jive to the gospel song referenced in the episode's title. This is the episode where the White Star turns out to be not just one ship, but the prototype for an entire fleet. Plus, Delenn and Sheridan disclose their feelings toward each other as they work out the reason behind the Shadows' seemingly random battle tactics.

"Shadow Dancing" is the episode where Sheridan and his allies plan and execute a huge and costly battle against the Shadows. Stephen's "walkabout," toward recovery from his addiction, comes to a nearly fatal end when he is stabbed while trying to break up a fight. Only as he lies bleeding in the Downbelow does he meet himself and have That Talk. Delenn and Sheridan begin a series of Minbari rituals that will lead to their marriage, including the three nights the would-be-bride stays up watching the groom sleep. In the final moments of this episode, Delenn is gobsmacked by the appearance of Anna Sheridan, John's wife, who was presumed killed along with the rest of her science vessel's crew at Z'ha'dum (see Season 2's "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum").

"Z'ha'dum" concludes the season by revealing what really happened to Anna Sheridan, here played by Melissa Gilbert (late of "Little House on the Prairie"). It also guest stars veteran character actor Jeff Corey (see TOS's third-season episode "The Cloud-Minders") as one of three human agents of the Shadows, together with Anna and Morden, who try to persuade Sheridan to see things from the Shadows' point of view. They view themselves as accessories to evolution, promoting the survival of the fittest by engineering wars that weed out weak races from among the starfaring folk of every age. They claim that the Vorlons, who represent the opposite ethic of nursing the younger races along through the application of order and discipline, have violated the "rules of engagement" established between their two races millennia ago. The whole Shadow war is just a big miunderstanding, they say. But Sheridan knows before he goes to Z'ha'dum that he will not survive the visit, and that the creature who appears to him in Anna's body is not the woman he married and mourned. Their negotiations end with Sheridan jumping into an all-but-bottomless pit while the White Star, armed with umpteen thousand megatons of Narn nukes, rams the main Shadow city. Back on Babylon 5, the White Star's detonation signals a retreat for Shadow forces surrounding the station. The folks at home are hit hard by rumors of Sheridan's death and Garibaldi's disappearance; the latter is last seen being swallowed, Starfury and all, by a Shadow ship. What a cliffhanger! What happens next? You'll have to wait for Season 4!

See also my review of Babylon 5 seasons one and two. For comparison purposes, see also my season-by-season reviews of Star Trek, including TOS seasons one, two, and three; of TNG seasons one, two, three, four, and five; and of DS9 seasons one, six, and seven.

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