Sunday, February 21, 2010

B5 Season 2

The second season of Babylon 5 , titled "The Coming of Shadows," takes place in the year 2259, though it originally aired from 1994 to 1995. Continuing the ongoing story of Season 1, it nevertheless sees the series through some major changes. Chief among those changes is the replacement of B5's captain. Jeffrey Sinclair (played by Michael O'Hare) has been reassigned to a diplomatic role on the Minbari homeworld. Taking his place is Capt. John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner of "How the West Was Won" and "Scarecrow & Mrs. King"), who is infamous among Minbari as the only human to destroy one of their battleships - hence his nickname "Starkiller." Those paying attention to the opening credits may notice that the female Narn character Na'Toth has been recast, with Mary Kay Adams replacing Caitlyn Brown; like Brown, however, Adams only makes a handful of appearances before being written off the show, though she continues to be billed as a regular cast member throughout this season.

Another addition to the main cast is Robert Rusler as Starfury squad leader Warren Keffer - a very admirable young man who leads a minor subplot, culminating in his discovery of the Shadow vessels that are secretly planning a galaxy-wide war. Unfortunately, Keffer dies a gruesome death in the final episode of the season. And finally, this season marks the return of Lyta Alexander, the station's first resident telepath who hasn't been seen since the pilot, played by Patricia Tallman. Though she doesn't rejoin the opening-credits cast until Season 4, Lyta's return spells the end for Talia Winters as a main character. Of all these cast changes, Talia's departure is the only one I regretted. Apparently the actress wanted out, but I was dissatisfied with the form her character's "trap door" took. More on that later.

"Points of Departure" opens the season by showing Sheridan, then the captain of the Starship Agamemnon, receiving his orders to take command of Babylon 5 from Gen. Hague of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Robert Foxworth of "Falcon Crest" and "Six Feet Under"). His first test of command, besides somehow squeezing his "lucky speech" into the first 24 hours on board, involves some threatening maneuvers by a rogue Minbari warship. Sheridan learns that the reason the Minbari aborted their genocide against mankind is that they discovered that some Minbari souls were being reborn as humans.

"Revelations" is the one where Minbari Ambassador Delenn comes out of her chrysalis, revealing that she has become half-human in an attempt to bridge the cultural gap between Minbar and Earth. The moment Sheridan claps eyes on her, you can see Cupid's arrow piercing his heart. Meanwhile, Garibaldi still hasn't come out of the coma resulting from his second's betrayal at the end of Season 1. Sheridan gets a visit from his sister Elizabeth (Beth Toussaint, who once played Tasha Yar's sister on TNG). The purpose of her appearance seems to be to raise the topic of Sheridan's wife Anna having been lost in the explosion of her science vessel. Narn Ambassador G'Kar begins trying to warn people about an ancient enemy, known to his people as the Shadows, who are about to return after a thousand years. And one of the Shadows' agents, an oily human named Morden, sets his hook deeper into the increasingly compromised soul of Centauri Ambassador Mollari.

"The Geometry of Shadows" guest-stars Michael Ansara as the leader of a group of "technomages" - people who use science to achieve the effects of magic - who intend to make B5 their last stop on their way out of the known universe. Apparently these spooky guys are spooked by the coming danger of the Shadows, and they want out before it can begin. This leads to problems for Sheridan, who isn't sure it's in Earth's interest to let these people leave, and for Londo, who invites a "curse" by attempting to finagle a prophetic endorsement of his political ambitions. Londo's snaky co-conspirator Lord Refa (recurringly played by William Forward) makes his first appearance here. And Ivanova gets a tough test of her diplomatic skills when Sheridan puts her in charge of controlling a bizarre form of gang warfare that has broken out among the turtle-faced aliens known as the Drazi.

"A Distant Star" marks the beginning of Warren Keffer's pursuit of the elusive Shadow vessels, which he first glimpses in this episode during a risky mission to rescue a starship that has gotten lost in hyperspace. Russ Tamblyn, lately "Riff" in the 1961 film West Side Story, guest-stars as Sheridan's friend Capt. Maynard. Also in this episode, Delenn endures some political fallout for her controversial decision to become half-human, and Dr. Franklin subjects the command staff to a rigorous "food plan" that threatens to upset Garibaldi's birthday tradition of bagna cauda (mmm, too bad this isn't a "food" post).

"The Long Dark" guest stars Dwight Schulz (lately "Barclay" on TNG and "Star Trek: Voyager") and Anne-Marie Johnson (late of TV's "In the Heat of the Night") as two victims of a scary alien that nourishes itself by sucking the life out of human beings. It first gets on board Babylon 5 via a pre-hyperspace-era spaceship whose cryogenically frozen crew has all been sucked dry, except for one deeply traumatized young woman named Mariah (Johnson). When people start dropping dead, the station goes into hysteria, with some suspecting either Amis (Schulz) or Mariah of causing the deaths. Ultimately the creature has to be lured into a trap baited with a semi-willing victim before it can be destroyed.

"A Spider in the Web" guest stars James Shigeta (who played the ill-fated Mr. Takagi in the original Die Hard), Adrienne Barbeau (of Escape from New York, etc.), and Michael Beck (of the cult gang-warfare film The Warriors) in a Talia-centric tale about a businessman who believes he has found a way Mars can achieve its independence peacefully, a Mars community leader who is afraid people will find out about her past association with a "Free Mars" terrorist group, and a Free Mars leader who has been turned into a high-tech, killer zombie by certain interests who don't want Mars to break free. As soon as I said "high-tech, killer zombie" you were sold, right?

"Soul Mates" is the howlingly funny episode that shows us Londo's three wives, previously described as "Famine, Pestilence, and Death." Their actual names are Mariel (a pretty young vixen), Daggair (a duplicitous backstabber played by the late, Emmy-winning actress Lois Nettleton), and Timov (a sharp-tongued shrew - just spell her name backwards! - played by English actress Jane Carr). Recurring Trek guest Carel Struycken also appears in this episode where Londo informs his wives that, by a special dispensation from the emperor, he has been granted a divorce. Only one of them will remain his consort, and the process of choosing her develops into a sort of comic version of King Lear. And Keith Szarabajka ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The Equalizer") plays Talia's ex-husband, who as a result of Psi Corps telepathy-enhancing experiments has developed some nasty skills as an empath. Matthew tempts Talia with an offer of a way out of Psi Corps.

"A Race through Dark Places" brings back Walter Koenig's recurring Psi Cop Alfred Bester. This time, Bester is hot on the trail of an "underground railroad" that he believes is helping unregistered telepaths elude recruitment by Psi Corps. He suspects that some high-level person on B5 is hiding these people, and he turns out to be right. The way the good guys pull the wool over Bester's eyes is simply ingenious. Meanwhile, Sheridan frets about being charged rent for his quarters, and Delenn asks him "out" for what could be interpreted as their first "date."

"The Coming of Shadows" introduces the recurring, and later regular, character of security officer Zack Allan (played by Jeff Conaway, late of TV's "Taxi" and "Celebrity Rehab"). It guest stars Turhan Bey, pictured here, as the Centauri Emperor (whose name also happens to be Turhan); and Malachi Throne (who made multiple guest-appearances on Star Trek) as Prime Miniester, well, Malachi. Hmm. Anyway, this episode won, I say won, the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1996. B5 went on to win another Hugo the following year, a noteworthy achievement when you consider that in 28 seasons and 11 feature films, Star Trek only won four Hugos; and, mind you, until 2002 TV episodes and feature films were nominated in the same category. It was "The Coming of Shadows" against an episode of DS9 and three movies, including Toy Story and Apollo 13! So that's pretty good. As for what happens in this episode - well, obviously, the Centauri Emperor comes to visit B5. Just as he is about to make a goodwill gesture towards the Narn, Londo conspires with the ambitious Lord Refa and the shadowy Mr. Morden to start another war against the Narn. Turhan dies whispering a curse into Londo's ear, Malachi gets assassinated, and some seriously bad stuff is set in motion.

"Gropos" - short for "Ground Pounders" - which, in turn, is a colloquial way of saying "Infantry" - stop over on B5 on their way to some battle or other, creating a serious short-term housing shortage and all the security problems you would expect. Leading these soldiers is an old warrior who happens to be Dr. Franklin's estranged father, played by Paul Winfield (late of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and TNG's "Darmok"). Warren Keffer makes friends with some of them, Garibaldi makes more than friends with one of them (pictured here after the battle - tsk), and the station gets a weapons upgrade from them, but other than that this episode is basically a pause in the forward march of the overall storyline.

"All Alone in the Night" introduces the recurring Narn character of Ta'Lon (Marshall Teague) in this episode, which also brings back Gen. Hague (Robert Foxworth) and the Minbari warrior Neroon (John Vickery). While Delenn goes before the Grey Council to find out how much her halfway-human transformation will cost her, Sheridan gets kidnapped by aliens who like to do crazy experiments on people, including forcing them to fight to the death. The trick will be surviving his fight with a strong young Narn, while keeping him alive so they can escape together. After being rescued, thanks in part to the self-sacrifice of a young Starfury pilot, Sheridan meets with Gen. Hague, who is sounding out the loyalty of the B5 command staff before proposing a conspiracy against the increasingly dictatorial Earth President Clark.

"Acts of Sacrifice" contains one of the funniest scenes in all of B5, which you can view here (following a little over a minute of introductory crud). Claudia Christian (Ivanova) really has a comic gift, which comes out to best advantage when Ivanova is assigned diplomatic duties toward an alien dignitary who, to conclude their treaty negotiations, insists on having sex "human style." Ivanova: "Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, GRAB!!!" On a recent commute home from work, I spent the better part of an hour reliving this moment in my memory and laughing until it hurt. The alien ambassador is played by British character actor Ian Abercrombie (Army of Darkness, "Seinfeld," "Desperate Housewives"), his diminutive asssistant by singer-songwriter Paul Williams ("We've Only Just Begun," "The Rainbow Connection," etc.). In a separate storyline, G'Kar desperately seeks allies to help the Narn people fight off the Centauri invasion, but the only help he can get is humanitarian aid from the humans and Minbari.

"Hunter, Prey" guest-stars sometime pro football player Bernie Casey as an Earthforce security officer who comes to B5 to lead a manhunt for President Clark's physician, who allegedly absconded with classified data that could threaten Earth's security. Meanwhile, an operative of Gen. Hague informs Sheridan that the doctor is actually carrying proof that Clark's illness, his excuse for not being on Earthforce One when it exploded, was feigned. This may be the key evidence that Clark colluded in the assassination of then-President Santiago, but Earthforce wants to hush it up. Rescuing Dr. Jacobs and his all-important data crystal turns into a perilous adventure in the crime-infested down-below. Guest stars include Richard Moll (lately Bull on "Night Court") and Wanda de Jesus (best known as Jimmy Smits' significant other, and for her recurring role on "CSI: Miami").

"There All the Honor Lies" lampoons the merchandising craze that often springs up around a series like this, by bringing a tourist-trap boutique on board B5. Sheridan puts Ivanova in charge of making sure the boutique doesn't cross the line into bad taste, but eventually shuts it down when he sees a stuffed toy with his initials on it. On a more serious level, this is the episode in which Sheridan shoots a Minbari dead, and is accused of murdering him in cold blood. Of course it turns out to be a set-up, but along the way we find out that while Minbari cannot lie as a rule, it's a rule they sometimes break when family honor is at stake. Julie Caitlyn Brown, a.k.a. just plain Caitlyn Brown, appears in this episode without Narn make-up as Sheridan's Earthforce-appointed lawyer. This episode establishes several notable things. First, it shows that Lennier can be a more effective detective than Garibaldi when he has to. Also, it shows the beginning of Kosh and Sheridan's master/grasshopper relationship.

"And Now For a Word" shows Babylon 5 from the point of view of an ISN news reporter who comes to the station to shoot a 36-hour documentary. Her editorial slant may seem obnoxiously pro-Earth and anti-B5 until you see Season 4's "The Illusion of Truth." It doesn't help that Cynthia Torqueman's visit is right on time to witness a skirmish between Narn and Centauri ships. G'Kar is furious to discover that the Centauri are funneling "mass drivers" - illegal weapons used to bombard a planet with meteors - through B5 for their war against Narn. As the political and diplomatic crisis heats up, Torqueman submits Delenn to a distressingly hostile interview and Londo issues chillingly Macchiavellian statements on his government's position. The tragedy escalates until two battleships - one Narn, the other Centauri - fight to each other's destruction before live news cameras. The question of whether B5 can really claim to be our "last, best hope for peace" is left very much unresolved.

"In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum" is the episode where, in one of his finest moments, Vir tells off Mr. Morden (video here). Sheridan learns that Morden was a member of the crew of his wife Anna's ship, the one that supposedly exploded, killing all on board. Actually, as he now begins to learn, the scientists on Anna's ship awoke an ancient evil that slept below the surface of a planet on the rim of the galaxy. This Z'ha'dum was the home base of the Shadows who warred against all the galaxy's forces of light a thousand years ago, and who were defeated but not destroyed with the aid of the "First Ones" - elder races who have not been seen for centuries, except for the Vorlons. This episode also establishes some far-reaching storylines, including Dr. Franklin's use (later abuse) of stims, the budding romance between Delenn and Sheridan, and the Nightwatch with its ominously appealing rhetoric about informing on people who dissent from the policies of the Clark regime. The Ministry of Peace apparatchik who introduces this rhetoric is played by Alex Hyde-White, who played Gen. Ambrose Burnside in Gods and Generals.

"Knives" is one of my favorite episodes of this season. In one storyline (pictured here), Sheridan becomes sorta-halfway possessed by an entity that just wants to go home. Its only way to communicate this to him, however, is through a series of hallucinations that make the captain begin to doubt his own sanity. It also guest-stars Carmen Argenziano, who has had recurring roles on "House" and "Stargate SG-1," as an old sparring buddy of Londo's who comes to visit B5. Urza Jaddo has fallen out of favor with the Centauri court and is in danger of being condemned as a traitor to his people, which would bring disgrace to his entire family. At first Londo tries to help him, but it turns out that the driving force behind Urza's denunciation is the same Lord Refa whom Londo has helped put in power. When he hears that Londo has taken up with Refa's crowd and their evil plans for the Republic, Urza challenges him to a duel. This duel Londo wins, in spite of Urza's vastly superior fencing skills, because it was Urza's plan all along. As his friend dies in his arms, Londo promises to adopt Urza's family into his own, and thus saves them from disgrace.

"Confessions and Lamentations" was the only episode of B5's second season that I saw during the series' original run. It made a deep impression on me, however; it's one of the reasons I took an interest in reading through the entire series on video. This is the episode in which the Markab race is completely wiped out by a plague, which (one might gather from some delicate hints) seems to have been planted in their midst by the Shadows. The poor Markabs don't stand a chance, because their culture and history have so conspired that anyone who gets this disease is assumed to be morally corrupt. So people don't report the symptoms when they or their loved ones begin to suffer from them; they don't respond well to outsiders' attempts to observe the progress of the disease, test the population for it, and search for treatments. Together with widespread panic about the possibility that the disease might jump the species barrier, this adds up to a species-wide catastrophe playing out right in front of everyone on B5. Dr. Franklin races to find a cure, and find one he does... only just too late. Then and now, I found the tragedy of this story very poignant. Pictured here, Irish character-actor Jim Norton appears as Markab medico Lazarenn.

"Divided Loyalties" is the episode that brings back Lyta Alexander, B5's original commercial telepath. It is also, not coincidentally, the end of the line for Talia Winters (played by Andrea Thompson), a really nice character who, in my opinion, came to a very unsatisfying end in this episode. Apparently the storyline where Talia turns out to be a sleeper agent, with a nasty latent personality programmed to surface and erase the old Talia at the pull of a given telepathic trigger, was planned from the beginning. Also planned, however, was a way to save the "good" Talia, using a recording of her personality Kosh had made early in Season 1. Instead, show runner J. Michael Straczynski used it as the character's "trap door" when actress Thompson asked out of the show. It was a bad end for a good character, I thought. On the other hand, this is also the episode that finally reveals the real reason Ivanova has always resisted being scanned by a telepath: she, herself, is a latent telepath, who has so far eluded the tender mercies of Psi Corps.

"The Long Twilight Struggle" is the episode in which the Centauri bomb the Narn homeworld into the stone age. Lord Refa and Londo call on the Shadows to stop a Narn offensive against a Centauri base, giving their own fleet a chance to strike at the heart of their enemy. Ultimately the Narn are forced to surrender, and G'Kar asks for sanctuary on B5. The chilling yet impressive image of Londo's face reflected in a window while he watches a starship bombard a planet, an clip included in the opening-titles montage throughout Season 3, came from this episode. Also, John Schuck guest-stars as Draal (previously played by Louis Turenne when he first appeared in Season 1), the Minbari custodian of the Great Machine on Epsilon 3, the planet adjacent to Babylon 5. The new Draal makes a humorously pompous appearance to Sheridan before inviting him and Delenn to visit him. This is where Sheridan learns about the Rangers, a combat unit organized by Jeff Sinclair and including both human and Minbari troops; here Sheridan and Delenn become joint commanders of the Rangers.

"Comes the Inquisitor" is the episode where the Vorlons send a nasty brute with a British accent to interrogate Delenn. Only, in Sebastian's idea of an inquisition, the questioner asks questions the answerer doesn't understand, then slowly tortures her to death while waiting for her to come up with the right answer. Evidently this test is necessary to determine whether Delenn is the right person to lead the forces of light in the coming Shadow war. Eventually it is the bond between Sheridan and Delenn, and their willingness to die for each other, that satisfies Sebastian. Sheridan learns that Sebastian was really Jack the Ripper, whom the Vorlons extracted from earth in 1888 and have kept on ice ever since, atoning for his crimes. G'Kar, meanwhile, begins his new role as the local leader of the Narn resistance against the Centauri occupation of their world. He immediately faces a challenge to his authority. This was the first B5 to feature guest star Wayne Alexander (here playing Sebastian); he went on to play members of four different species, most notably the recurring character of Lorien.

"The Fall of Night" is the Season 2 finale, and the episode that first shows us what lives inside Kosh's encounter suit. Actually, I suppose, that's a matter of perspective, since everybody in the Zen Garden looked up and saw whatever his or her race thought God looked like. Why the strip tease? Kosh had to act fast to catch Sheridan, who was slowly falling through the station's center of gravity after jumping out of a bomb-rigged cable-car moments before it exploded. Let's back up. The trouble starts when the Centauri start making aggressive gestures towards other alien races with borders adjacent to Centauri space. One of the few remaining Narn warships comes to B5, seeking repairs, supplies, and shelter. A Centauri warship soon materializes, threatening to violate the sanctuary. Into the midst of this highly-charged situation comes an Earth diplomat operating on behalf of the Ministry of Peace. After confabbing with representatives of all the alien races on B5 with the pointed exception of G'Kar, Lantz (played by Roy Dotrice of TV's "Beauty and the Beast") decides what he has to do is sign a non-aggression pact with the Centauri. At the same time, Sheridan is deciding that what he has to do is beat the hell out of the Centauri cruiser threatening his station. John Vickery also appears as a "thought police" cheerleader who comes over to stir up the Nightwatch in its disloyalty witchhunt. And finally, Warren Keffer bites the dust in a most unpleasant way, but only after obtaining photographic evidence of the Shadow vessels lurking in hyperspace.

Billed as "the year the Great War came upon us all," B5 Season 2 continued to carry forward a story of awesome breadth, complexity, and power. To be sure, it isn't a perfect year of TV. Coming at it from the perspective of a Star Trek fan, I have to admit feeling a small sense of antixlimax built into the structure of each B5 episode, what with the brief "tag" at the end, following the last commercial break. This tag usually comes after the main story of the episode has been tied up and so mainly serves to tie the episode back into series continuity. Add to this the fact that many of the episodes have titles that are difficult to distinguish from one another, and many of them almost cannot stand on their own as distinct stories outside the larger arc of the season or the whole series, and it becomes clear that B5 is a series that requires a longer attention span to truly enjoy. Every season has some episodes that can best be described in terms of how they incrementally advance the series arc. This is a strength for the series, but at times a weakness for the individual episode.

Yet it is, in spite of this and because of this, a fascinating series, and deeply rewarding for those who see it through. As I write this, I am already in the middle of watching Season 4, so I know whereof I speak. It is full of interesting aliens - interesting to look at, and even more interesting to discover how they think and live. It has pages upon pages of beautifully written dialogue. It has riveting story developments that move on a massive scale, holding you in suspense across several episodes at a stretch. It has actors who are really amazingly good at what they do - especially Andreas Katsulas (G'Kar), Peter Jurasik (Londo), and Stephen Furst (Vir). It has an eyepopping succession of guest stars, a parade of spectacular imagery, and resonances to our own world in many of the earthy, flawed, and dangerous characters and currents of events. Students of journalism and political science should be made to watch this series from beginning to end because of the dangers it warns of, dangers (for example) in the way public leaders deal with dissent, dangers to the freedom of thought and expression, dangers to the laws of warfare and the prospects of world peace, that can be seen in the mirror this sci-fi series holds up to the march of events in our time.

See also my review of Babylon 5 season one. 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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