Sunday, 7 January 2018

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 4, Episodes 5-6

D5: The Long Night
Airdates: 27 January 1997 (US), 21 August 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by John Lafia
Cast: Ericsson (Bryan Cranston), Emperor Cartagia (Wortham Krimmer), G’Lorn (Kim Strauss), Jester (William Scudder), Humanoid (Tim Barron), Drazi Ambassador (Ron Campbell), Centauri #1 (Carl Reggiardo), Centauri #2 (Mark Bramhall)

Date: 22-23 January 2261.

Plot:    The Shadows have launched a counter-offensive against the Vorlons, using their own planet-killer, a weapon known as a Death Cloud, to bombard the surface of a Vorlon outpost in Sector 900 with thousands of nuclear bombs, each with a multi-gigaton warhead which burrows into the planet’s core and explodes. The planet disintegrates over the course of several hours. Sheridan is trying to work out how to get the Vorlons and Shadows to fight one another directly: maybe they will massacre one another before Sheridan’s forces intervene. He sends Ivanova and Lorien on a White Star ship to finish locating the rest of the First Ones. Lorien knows where the other ones are and can communicate with them.

On Narn Vir and Londo call a secret meeting with representatives of the Centaurum and the nobility who have accompanied the Royal Court here. They agree that Cartagia must die and agree to support Londo’s plan. Londo has secured a poison-injector which will kill Cartagia and leave almost no trace. They arrange for Cartagia to try G’Kar in front of a group of his own people, but Londo has weakened G’Kar’s chains. Cartagia realises this and orders the chains replaced. G’Kar manages to escape anyway and runs amok. Londo pulls Cartagia to safety but Cartagia realises he is plotting something and starts strangling him. Vir stabs and kills him with the injector. The Centaurum elect Londo Mollari as Prime Minister of the Republic and Londo orders the withdrawal of all Centauri forces, military and otherwise, from Narn. After the Centauri forces depart, the Narns celebrate their freedom and offer G’Kar a post as their new leader. He refuses and suggests they reconvene the Kha’Ri council. When the other Narns start speaking of vengeance, he tells them they are fools and have learned nothing from the past.

Lennier’s analysis of the Vorlon fleet movements indicates that they will reach the planet Coriana VI in three days. Coriana VI has a population of six billion, far more than any other planet destroyed so far. Sheridan decides they must make their stand there. The allied fleet assembles and begins attacking Vorlon bases and convoys, trying to slow their advance. Simultaneously, Sheridan has a White Star taskforce led by Captain Ericsson and White Star 14 attack a Shadow base. White Star 14 has false information indicating that the Rangers have a massive base on Coriana VI. The ship is destroyed (the other White Stars flee), but the Shadows find the data recording in the wreckage and set off for Coriana VI. Sheridan’s fleet departs the station as well, ready for one final battle.


Dating the Episode: The episode begins three days after the previous episode ends.

The Arc: Emperor Cartagia is now dead and Londo is promoted to Prime Minister. He officially maintains this rank until episode E18, although most of the time he is back on Babylon 5.

Following the Narn-Centauri War of B9-B20 and the conquest of the Narn homeworld in B20, the Narn are once again free to pursue their own destiny. Future important Narn episodes include E12 and E17-E18.

The Shadow Death Clouds reappear in book DC14 and episode TVM4.

 “Someone” left a note on his desk for Sheridan when he first assumed command of Babylon 5. That person was obviously Sinclair, as the poem was Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. We know that Sinclair was a big fan of Tennyson from episode A5 and comic DC1.

All the elements in this episode are mainly building for the events of D6, which concludes the opening six-part story of Season 4.

Background: Coriana VI is located in Sector 70 by 12 by 05. It has a population of six billion people. According to the next episode, it is a relatively primitive industrial world whose people were forced to allow the Shadows to set up a base there.

The Shadows use a planet-killing weapon called a “Death Cloud”. The cloud is a moving cluster of millions of tunnelling missiles. The cloud completely enshrouds a planet and then missiles are fired into the surface. They before through the surface until they reach the core, where they explode. The planet begins to break apart in just a few hours, although it is rendered uninhabitable much more quickly.

Centauri have two hearts.

There is a Shadow listening post and outpost on Dorac VII, which is located 10 light-minutes from a key Shadow staging area.

The Kha’Ri spoke with a multiplicity of equal voices, to avoid what the Narns considered a key weakness of the Centauri system, the power and status they invested in the role of Emperor.

As indicated by previous episodes, the White Star ships are just given numbers (Ericsson commands White Star 14). However, we learn in E14 that many of the Rangers give their ships unofficial nicknames.

References: Ericsson may be named for the captain in the classic war movie The Cruel Sea. But probably isn’t.

Centauri having two hearts may be a nod at Doctor Who, where the Time Lords (including the titular character) have two hearts.

“My eye offended him” is a reference to the Gospel of Matthew, Chaper 18 verse 9: “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from three.” Basically, confirming once again that G’Kar is Space Lizard Jesus (who just gets laid more).

Ericsson’s suicide mission was inspired by WWII military disinformation missions, where both sides were trying to feed disinformation to the other, sacrificing lives to make it more plausible. Straczynski noted that that “good guys” in the Allies did this as well, most notably in the misinformation campaign leading up to the D-Day, which misled the Germans into believing that the invasion would be the Pas-de-Calais and not Normandy, which slowed their reaction times considerably.

Unanswered Questions: Do the Narns refound the Kha’Ri? Later episodes seem to be unclear on the subject.

Did the Centauri give back the Narns the ships, colonies and materials they had captured during the war?

Mistakes, Retcons and Lamentations: The Season 3 theme music was played by error over the end credits, rather than the Season 4 music.

Behind the Scenes: The Shadow Death Cloud was conceived and created by Harlan Ellison, Babylon 5’s creative consultant.

Andreas Katsulas saw G’Kar’s change in behaviour as a gaining of empathy and the ability to analyse other people to see their virtues and flaws, whilst before his revelation (in C6) he generally had no interest in or time for other people.

Director John Lafia, making his B5 debut, felt that scenes of people sitting around tables talking could be a little dull, so in the opening conspiracy scene he had the camera circle the table continuously to make it feel both more energetic and more claustrophobic.

Making the Centauri administrative centre on Narn resemble the Centauri Royal Palace was, of course, a way of saving money by reusing the same sets (although the layout and orientation of the rooms was changed to make it appear to be at least a bit different).

In the original outline it was Londo who killed Cartagia. Straczynski realised when he was writing the scene that it was far more interesting to have Vir do it.

A scene with Ivanova and Lorien discussing his race’s mortality was filmed for this episode but moved to D6, creating a curious continuity error in the process.

Straczynski on future Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston’s performance: “Thanks...I think a lot of it there has to do also with the performance of the actor playing Ericsson. He brought a real sense of presence to the job.”

Familiar Faces: Modern viewers will likely do a bit of a double-take at seeing Bryan Cranston show up as Ranger Ericsson. Cranston is, of course, best-known for playing the role of Walter White, the ultimate antihero, in the AMC series Breaking Bad (2008-13). Before that he played the role of hapless father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle (2000-06). At the time he appeared on Babylon 5 he was playing the recurring role of dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfeld (most notably as the instigator of the “regifting” phenomenon).

Review: Like most of these early Season 4 episodes, it feels rushed, a bit contrived and a bit convenient. Sheridan sacrificing an entire White Star crew to die is the sort of moral and ethical dilemma we’d at least have gotten a big discussion about previously, but here it’s tossed off in a manner that makes Sheridan come across as unfeeling and ruthless. On the other hand, the energy of the piece and the performances of Peter Jurasik, Andreas Katsulas and Stephen Furst (along with the splendidly deranged Wortham Krimmer) are all rich and deeply compelling. And seeing Walter White show up as a starship commander is now quite amusing. ****

G’Kar: “An empty eye sees through to an empty heart.”

Vir: “What was any of it for?”

Sheridan: “You’re not a married man, are you Ericsson?”  (another inspiring Sheridan moment)

G’Kar: “I did not fight to remove one dictator just to become another myself!”

D6: Into the Fire
Airdates: 3 February 1997 (US), 28 August 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Kevin James Dobson
Cast: Lorien (Wayne Alexander), Minister Durano (Julian Barnes), Minister Virini (Damian London), Morden (Ed Wasser), Vorlon Ambassador (Ardwight Chamberlain)

Date: 26 January 2261.

Plot:    Ivanova and Lorien encounter another of the First Ones in deep space, apparently the last of the six First One observers who remained behind along with the entire Shadow and Vorlon civilisations. Lorien convinces them to converge at Coriana VI and they depart. Their White Star returns to Babylon 5 to re-arm before heading on to the Coriana system.

Sheridan’s fleet attacks a series of Vorlon outposts, preventing them from alerting the Vorlon fleet to the several thousand ships converging on Coriana VI. Lyta notices an intelligence report confirming that another Vorlon fleet is approaching the Centauri Prime system, but given that there are ‘only’ three billion people on Centauri Prime and six billion on Coriana, that is where the final battle must take place.

Londo and Vir arrive back on Centauri Prime and Londo gives orders to members of the Centaurum. A few hours later Morden arrives, now fully healed from his experiences on Z’ha’dum. Londo has his guards (apparently) kill the two Shadows guarding Morden and then orders him to remove the Shadow ships from the island of Celini, where more than 100 vessels are based. Morden refuses, pointing out that if the Centauri fleet attacks the island from space, the Shadows will be able to intercept and destroy them before they can get anywhere nearby. Londo agrees and detonates three high-yield nuclear fusion bombs that were hidden on the island during the night. The Shadow vessels are vapourised and Morden is thrown in a cell. As he’s dragged off he tells Londo that even if the Shadows lose this war their allies will make sure Centauri Prime pays the price for what Londo has done. The intelligence minister then tells Londo that his investigations indicate that Lord Refa was not responsible for Adira Tyree’s murder after all (in C15), it was Morden. A little later Londo tells Vir to have a look in the garden and Vir sees Morden’s head on a pike. Fulfilling his promise, Vir waves at him (B17).

Meanwhile, the allies’ fleet reaches Coriana VI and begins placing mines on the numerous asteroids circling the planet. Ivanova’s White Star arrives and Lorien shuttles across to Sheridan’s command ship. Suddenly the Vorlon and Shadow fleets appear within minutes of one another. Initially they head straight towards one another but Sheridan detonates a series of the Gaim nuclear mines (gained in episode C22), causing severe damage to their fleets. A bloody three-way battle erupts in low orbit between the Shadows, Vorlons and younger races.

Londo sends word to the Vorlon taskforce approaching Centauri Prime that the Shadows have been destroyed and their agent, Morden, as well. However, the Vorlon planet-killer begins powering up its primary weapons array. Vir realises that they want Londo dead as well, because he has been touched by the Shadows. Londo orders Vir to kill him, but then the Vorlon fleet moves off, summoned to reinforce the battle at Coriana VI.

The planet-killer at the main battle prepares to fire at Coriana and Sheridan’s fleet is unable to damage it. He calls in the six First Ones and they destroy the planet-killer. Stunned by their appearance, the Vorlons and Shadows cease fire and agree to talk to Sheridan and Delenn. Sheridan wants to know why the Vorlons haven’t used their planet-killers against Z’ha’dum itself but the Vorlons are unable to reply. Sheridan tells them that they and the Shadows are playing a game with billions of lives, but refuse to fight one another directly because they will either kill each other off or if one side wins, the other side won’t be around to admit their enemies were right. Lorien transmits images of the negotiations to the other races, but the Shadows and Vorlons realise what he is doing and become incensed. The Shadow Death Cloud weapon surrounds the allies’ fleet and prepares to destroy Sheridan’s command ship, but ceases fire after a Minbari warcruiser and a Drazi Sunhawk throw themselves into the path of incoming missiles. Lorien and the other First Ones tell the Shadows and Vorlons that they have failed in their mission to safeguard the younger races. The younger races no longer need them and it is time to leave. After some consideration the Vorlons and Shadows admit that further combat is pointless now their secrets are out. Their fleets disengage and, led by the First Ones, depart from this galaxy altogether. Lorien pauses a moment to say goodbye and joins them.

On Centauri Prime Londo and Vir toast the victory over both the Shadows and Vorlons and Vir sets off for Babylon 5, leaving Londo to ponder his future on Centauri Prime. He decides to return to Babylon 5 as well, though not until a few things are straightened out.

The allies’ fleet returns to Babylon 5 and a victory celebration. Sheridan says that this is the dawn of a new age, a third age. The First Age was when the younger races were too primitive to forge their own destinies. During the Second Age they were guided by outside forces who thought they knew best. During the Third Age, however, they can at last stand on their own two feet.

Dating the Episode: This episode takes place three days after the previous episode and one week after the events of D4.

The Arc: The Shadow War comes to its conclusion with both the Shadows and Vorlons agreeing to leave the Galaxy for good. However, as Morden says, the Shadows have allies who remain behind. This will be followed up on in future episodes.

Mr. Morden finally meets his end in this episode and in the manner, that Vir predicted back in episode B17.

It’s possible that both Londo killing Morden (“the man who is already dead”, in some sense, given the death of his hopes and dreams with his wife and daughter in NOV7) or asking Vir to kill him to save Centauri Prime are nods to Lady Morella’s prophecy from episode C9.

The ploy with the mined asteroids being used to nuke the Shadow and Vorlon fleets is similar to the tactic that Sheridan used to destroy the Black Star.

The Third Age of Mankind mentioned in the pilot and Season 1 and 2 narrations finally begins in this episode. Except that it’s the Third Age of all the younger races, not just humanity.

Background: According to DC12-14, there are approximately six thousand ships in Sheridan’s fleet. The Vorlons and Shadows deploy almost all of their forces to the engagement, almost ten thousand ships each (it’s presumed these figures include fighters and support craft). In total, more than 26,000 ships take part in the Battle of Coriana VI, making it easily the biggest engagement in recorded interstellar history.

Centauri Prime has a population of 3 billion, which seems unusually low for such a major world. However, the Centauri have been a spacefaring civilisation for centuries and have likely dispersed their population across colony worlds more efficiently. Given our knowledge of Centauri physiology, it may also be that procreation for Centauri is both more complex and finely controlled than for humans. Finally, the Centauri likely have highly efficient birth control methods.

The First Ones discovered at the start of the episode are located in the vicinity of the Pillars of Creation, a vast star-forming region between 6,500 and 7,000 light-years from Earth (and Babylon 5). For the pillars to be so visible, which are each multiple light-years in height, Ivanova’s White Star would have to be several light-years away from them. This is still the furthest verified distance from Babylon 5 that a ship has travelled in the series.

There are more than two dozen races in Sheridan’s coalition. The Minbari, Narn, Brakiri, Drazi, Narn, Vree and some humans (from the Rangers and Babylon 5) are clearly part of the alliance as their ships are readily identifiable. Assuming most of the League of Non-aligned Worlds is on board, the Gaim, Hyach, Llort, Abbai, Pak’ma’ra, Grome and Ipsha are also presumably part of the fleet, and possibly the Yolu, Cascor, Trakallans and Sh’lassans as well. That still leaves six races unaccounted for.

Lorien’s race were naturally immortal to start with, but later generations began to grow old and died. Lorien attributes this to the universe deciding that for life to be meaningful, it had to be finite.

Aw’hel” means “continuous fire” in the Minbari religious dialect.

The Stra’kath is the Drazi Sunhawk which sacrifices itself to save the White Star 2 from a Shadow missile. The Minbari warcruiser which is also destroyed is not named.

There are six First One races/representatives present at the Battle of Coriana VI.

Confirming the hints from episode D2, Lorien’s natural form is a large sphere of glowing light, hundreds of feet in diameter.

References: The Third Age of Mankind has been referenced since the pilot episode. This episode finally tells us it is the age when the younger races (including humanity) are fully independent and in charge of their own destinies, after a first age of primitivism and a second age where they were at the mercy of greater powers. The term “Third Age” is of course another nod to The Lord of the Rings, where the great War of the Ring is the event that ends the Third Age and begins the Fourth.

At the start of the episode Ivanova and Lorien meet one of the First Ones with the dramatic “Pillars of Creation” in the background. This was one of the first major photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope after its faulty lens was repaired by a NASA mission. The photograph was taken on 1 April 1995 by Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen of Arizona State University and depicts three irregular columns of star-forming gas in the Eagle Nebula, between 6,500 and 7,000 light-years from Earth. The “pillar” on the furthest left is over four light-years in height (equalling the distance from Earth to Alpha Centauri). The pillars consist of cool molecular hydrogen and dust.

The island of Celini bears a striking similarity (name and physical lay-out) to the Italian island of Sicily.

Straczynski has cited the novel Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank as an inspiration. In the book a massive nuclear war takes place off-stage and the focus is on the characters rebuilding, which is what he wanted to explore in Babylon 5 (but also have the build-up to the war in the same story). He was also inspired by the idea of doing the American Civil War and the Reconstruction, not just focusing on one or the other.

The conflict between the Vorlons and Shadows being a battle between Order and Chaos is a classic one in science fiction and fantasy, most notably in the Tales of the Eternal Champion meta-series by Michael Moorcock (and particularly in the Elric sub-series). More recent examples include the Warhammer 40,000 space fantasy series. Star Wars, arguably, can be read as a struggle between the order-obsessed Sith and Galactic Empire and the freer, looser Rebel Alliance (with the ossified Jedi Order destroying themselves by too much slavish devotion to outdated dogma).

Unanswered Questions: What happened to Lorien’s personal starship that we saw in episode D3? Was it just left behind on Babylon 5 or did it vanish with him?

Why did all of the millions or billions of Shadows and Vorlons agree to change their patterns of behaviour developed over millions of years of civilisation based on a ten-minute conversation with two beings they consider vastly and infinitely inferior?

Mistakes, Retcons and Lamentations: The “Pillars of Creation” is a very cool, dramatic and iconic background image to use. It’s also fanciful to do so because in real-colour and real-time, the pillars would not look anything like they do in the picture (which was a composite of multiple pictures taken in different wavelengths).

In addition, the Pillars are believed to have been severely disrupted in the last few centuries by what appears to be a supernova shockwave approaching them at some speed; although this won’t be visible from Earth for another 1,000 years, it would certainly be visible from the White Star’s vantage point. Of course, this was not discovered until twelve years after the episode aired.

The Vorlons and Shadows arriving at Coriana VI at the exact same moment, to within a few seconds of each other, seems incredibly unlikely.

When Sheridan and Delenn are talking to the Shadows and Vorlons, they are enclosed in glowing energy fields. However, these fields are not present in the close-ups of Lorien standing between them with their shoulders in view (this appears to be due to the editors forgetting to add the effects to the widescreen shots).

During the battle sequence, several Shadow warships seem to be destroyed by single, brief hits from the main gun on a White Star-class vessel, which is a dramatic increase in their power (considering the enormous effort and numbers required by a White Star in C18 and C21 to destroy single Shadow ships).

Lorien says they have six First Ones, but only five appear during the battle. It’s possible that the sixth is Lorien himself.

The scene where Lorien and Ivanova discuss his race’s mortality was filmed for D5 but moved to this episode. However, this creates a bizarre continuity error as it means they head back to Babylon 5 before going to Coriana VI to rendezvous with the fleet. There is no reason for them to head back to B5.

In episode D4 Lorien explains that the First Ones are incredibly powerful and invulnerable (or at least resistant) to the weapons of the younger races. The amount of power and effort it took to kill Ulkesh was considerable and only achieved with the intervention of Kosh (another First One). In this episode, on the other hand, two Centauri guards kill two Shadows in under five seconds (albeit with what appear to be Centauri plasma miniguns) with no problems and even a comedy quip from Londo.

Behind the Scenes: Originally the Shadow War would have continued for eight or nine episodes in Season 4 with a few more strategic shifts and reversals, but the uncertainty hanging over the season encouraged Straczynski to conclude the conflict in episode six. This proved controversial, especially in the States where episodes D4 and D5 were separated by a two-month break so no sooner had the season gotten on air again, it was all over. However, Straczynski felt that the Shadow/Vorlon debate was essentially philosophical and nothing would have been gained from extending the storyline apart from more battle scenes.

Straczynski also felt that a lot of the war itself (which really only began at the end of episode C14) had been played out in meetings, on impersonal charts and maps and with speeches, which was interesting but impersonal compared to the character-based stuff, which he felt the Earth Alliance Civil War was going to be much better for (as it was where the characters lived and they couldn’t just blow up their enemies en masse like they could, to some extent, with the impersonal Shadows and Vorlons). Straczynski felt that the power of the Shadows and Vorlons had lain with the mysteries about them and with all those mysteries in the open it was time to wrap them up and move on.

Straczynski also had a problem that he felt too many people was saying that Babylon 5 was just the story of the Shadow War and he wanted to show this was not the case. Ironically, the production team of Deep Space Nine were also complaining around this time that too many people saw their show as being just about the Dominion conflict when they had a lot of other stories in motion.

According to Straczynski, one key element he wished he’d been able to get into more was Kosh’s backstory: Kosh started off as a standard Vorlon acolyte to order and obedience but his acquaintance with Valen during the previous Great War made him realise the futility of the cycle just repeating itself. This led to Kosh’s epiphany that the only way to end the cycle was to rebel against his own people and help Sheridan find a different path. He considered writing a novel from Kosh’s POV but felt it was difficult to write from such an alien perspective and might also spoil the mystery of Kosh and the Vorlons.

Bruce Boxleitner enjoyed doing the scene where he confronts the Vorlons, who are represented by a woman in a giant ice cube. He felt that was right out of The Twilight Zone in its weirdness.

Mira Furlan played the “evil Delenn” (the Shadow representative) as a fascist police officer or a concentration camp commander version of the regular Delenn.

Peter Jurasik enjoyed doing the scene where Londo learns that Morden killed Adira and smashes up his room, but notes that because of budget they only had one take and he couldn’t get more nuance and layers into the performance as he wanted.

A scene with Ivanova and Lorien discussing his race’s mortality was filmed for the previous episode but moved to this one, creating a curious continuity error in the process.

This episode has 114 CG shots, one of the highest in the entire series.

Familiar Faces: Julian Barnes (Minister Durano) is an English actor who has done a lot of American television and film work. He has played the occasionally recurring character of Harold on soap opera Days of Our Lives since 2009, the British UN representative in the movie Pacific Rim and also played Dr. Woodruff in the Lost episode Par Avion. He also appeared in the movie The Rocketeer.

Review: A divisive episode, with some praising Straczynski for ending the war with a philosophical discussion of ideals and ideologies and others criticising him for exactly the same thing. The space battle is nice (if unimaginative) and there’s a lot of good ideas floating around, but this episode feels badly rushed in places, with lots of contrivances (the Shadows and Vorlons showing up at the exact same moment) and some of the show’s worst and cheesiest dialogue to date. Sheridan screaming “GET THE HELL OUT OF OUR GALAXY!” is almost certainly the show’s single most cringe-inducing and embarrassing moment out of all five seasons. At the same time, not ending the war with an orgy of violence and destructive nihilism and by touching on big-picture existential stuff means that this episode genuinely raises some interesting questions, even if they are inadequately explored. ***½

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