Wednesday, 18 October 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 17-18

B17: In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum
Airdates: 10 May 1995 (US), 23 May 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by David J. Eagle
Cast: Morden (Ed Wasser), Sergeant Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway), Pierce Macabee (Alex Hyde-White), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain)

Date: 24 September 2259.

Plot:    Following his recent vision of the destruction of the Icarus (B16), Sheridan has decided to finally sort out the belongings of his dead wife, Anna. Garibaldi comes along just as Sheridan is playing the crew roster from the Icarus and is shocked to see someone he recognises: Mr. Morden, Londo’s erstwhile ally. Sheridan is enraged that someone survived the Icarus explosion and no-one ever told him. Realising from entry records that Morden is on the station, he orders Garibaldi to find Morden and bring him in for questioning immediately.

Pierce Macabee arrives on Babylon 5. A representative of the newly-formed Ministry of Peace, he announces the founding of a new organisation called Nightwatch. Nightwatch’s job will be to help people in trouble, intervening in social problems in the way that military forces and the police cannot. Garibaldi’s second-in-command, Sergeant Zack Allan, joins up, although mainly for the extra 50 credits a week than out of any sense of civic duty.

A large number of Narns pass through Medlab, most badly wounded by heavy fighting. Franklin treats them, but is increasingly using stims to keep going without the need for sleep. Ivanova forces him to get some sleep and food.

Morden is placed in a holding cell and quizzed mercilessly by Sheridan. Morden agrees that he was on the Icarus, but was working EVA when the ship was destroyed. He was picked up by a passing transport and dropped off at the Vega colony. It was months before he could remember what happened. Sheridan tells him he is lying: there is no record of Morden ever visiting the Vega colony or reporting his condition to Earth. He promises to keep Morden in holding – even without charge – until the truth is revealed. Garibaldi, astonished by Sheridan’s abuse of the law, refuses to cooperate and resigns. Sheridan even refuses to listen to Ivanova. Vir tells Sheridan that the Centauri government is extending their diplomatic immunity to cover Morden, but Sheridan ignores that as well. He tries to get Talia Winters to scan Morden against his consent but she refuses. Sheridan arranges for them to pass in the corridor and Talia sees two dark, insectoid shapes rearing up next to Morden. She screams and almost passes out, confirming Sheridan’s guess that something is seriously wrong. Finally, Delenn and Kosh confront Sheridan and agree to tell him what he needs to know.

Millions of years ago races so powerful they make humans look like insects colonised the Galaxy. As the aeons passed they raised lesser races to positions of power and then passed beyond the Galactic Rim. These “First Ones” became embroiled in a war against one of their own races, a species known only as “the Shadows” and after a devastating conflict ten thousand years ago, most left the Galaxy. The Shadows and another race, the Vorlons, remained behind. A thousand years ago the Shadows returned and waged war again, but were stopped by an alliance of races led by the Minbari and guided by the Vorlons. The Shadows were defeated but not destroyed. They went to ground, going into hibernation to ride out the next millennia before arising again. Almost three years ago the Interplanetary Expeditions science vessel Icarus landed on Z’ha’dum, the Shadow homeworld. From what Delenn and Kosh can gather, they stumbled across or even directly awoke the Shadows, who in turn destroyed the Icarus and murdered the entire crew bar Morden, who agreed to serve them. Since then the Shadows have been moving, rebuilding their ships and marshalling their forces quietly, in secret. For the past year the Minbari have also been preparing, but are far from ready. Kosh and Delenn tell Sheridan that if he forces Morden to tell him the truth about his fate then the Shadows will attack now, before the Minbari and Vorlons are prepared to fight them, and billions will die.

Sheridan is unsure what to make of the story until he scans Morden’s cell with infra-red and ultraviolet sensors and catches a brief glimpse of two Shadow aliens guarding Morden. He has Morden released and Garibaldi returns to work. He then goes to Kosh and asks to be taught about how to fight the Shadows and how to kill them. Though Anna is probably dead, he will never rest easy until he knows for sure. One day, he promises Kosh, he will go to Z’ha’dum. Kosh tells him that if he goes, he will die. Sheridan says that if that is so, he will not die alone.


Dating the Episode: Morden’s latest arrival date is given on-screen as 22 September 2259 and Garibaldi says that was two days previously.

The Arc: The previous relationship between the Vorlons and Minbari is confirmed in this episode, namely that they fought against the Shadows side-by-side a millennium ago. TVM1 reveals that they have had remarkably little contact since then, however.

Delenn insinuates that the Minbari are taking other steps to prepare for the inevitable Shadow invasion. Part of these preparations include the formation of the Rangers, last seen in episode B9. Episodes B20, C1 and C20 expand on what other preparations are being made.

We learn in this episode what the question was that Delenn asked Kosh in episode A22, the one he replied “Yes,” to. The question was “Have the Shadows returned to Z’ha’dum?”

Kosh and Delenn don’t know all the answers to Sheridan’s questions. Delenn doesn’t know what exactly the Shadows’ goal is (although Kosh, as we later learn, does) and we don’t find out until episode C22.

Delenn’s description of the First Ones strongly echoes G’Kar’s speech to Catherine Sakai at the end of episode A6. This isn’t a coincidence, as we find out in episode C5.

The Shadows react badly to Talia Winters’ presence. We learn more about this in episode C14.

The Nightwatch plays a gradually larger and larger role in the series. Major episodes resolving around Nightwatch’s objectives include episodes B22, C5, C8 and C9.

Dr. Franklin is using stims to stay awake on duty, much like Dr. Lauren Rosen did in episode A21. This decision is reflected in episodes C3 and C15.

Vir tells Morden he wouldn’t mind seeing his head on a pike. Vir is reminded of this comment in episode D6.

Sheridan says that a subordinate “interpreting orders for a superior officers could be considered an act of insubordination”, an almost word-for-word repeat of what Colonel Zayn said about Sinclair in episode A16. This subtly draws a parallel between Sheridan being driven and running roughshod over the rules for what he thought was a good reason and Colonel Zayn doing the same thing in that episode.

Background: The Minbari have had space travel for more than one thousand years. The Vorlons and Shadows have had space travel for a million.

The Shadows can somehow alter their bodies’ electromagnetic signature, moving from area to area of the spectrum. They can appear to be visible normally, but spend most of the time flitting from the infra-red to the ultra-violet to other, unknown, areas of the spectrum.

According to Straczynski, the Great Machine on Epsilon III may have been built by the First Ones but Varn and his people were only caretakers, certainly not on the same level.

139 people died on board the Icarus, suggesting that Morden was the 140th.

The Narns had a colony in Sector 29, which has been destroyed by the Centauri.

References: The Icarus was named after the Greek mythological figure who flew to close to the sun and died for it, a common parallel for those seeking too much knowledge and dying for their arrogance and hubris. The correlation to Interplanetary Expedition is not subtle.

The suggestion that Winston Churchill knew that Coventry was going to be bombed and destroyed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz and willingly sacrificed the city to keep the code-breaking effort secret is simply not true, and seems to be derived from a single Bletchley Park officer who made the claim in a sensationalist memoir in the 1970s. Other Bletchley Park and government staff of the time vehemently denied that they knew Coventry was going to be the target. This was confirmed in 1996, one year after this episode aired, when the full ULTRA intercepts of the period were declassified. These confirm that the Germans were planning a major bombing raid but the target was believed to be either London or Southampton; the intelligence services were unaware that the Luftwaffe designation for Southampton (“LOGE”) had been reassigned to Coventry. Churchill believed that London was the most likely target, due to Hitler’s obsession with showing the power of terror raids, and ordered a robust defence of the capital. He was taken by surprise when Coventry was attacked instead.

The Foundation, the semi-spiritual, semi-philosophical ethos that Dr. Franklin shares, is a nod to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation science fiction novels.

The “Ministry of Peace” is a nod to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, something Macabee references himself when he calls it “Minipax”, the same abbreviation from the book.

Unanswered Questions: Given the trouble the Shadows caused, why did the other First Ones tolerate their survival?

Mistakes, Retcons and Lamentations: When Delenn says that the First Ones went away, “all but one,” she indicates that Kosh is “the one” she is talking about. However, it’s actually the entire Vorlon species. This phrasing was clumsy enough that Straczynski had to qualify the explanation online after the episode aired.

This is the only episode where a war with the Shadows taking place 10,000 years ago – 9,000 years before the previous conflict – is mentioned, although later episodes do not contradict it.

Sheridan assumes – and is not contradicted – that the crew of the Icarus awoke the Shadows in late 2256/early 2257, roughly two years and nine months previously. However, comics DC5-8 and episode C8 confirm that this was not the case, and the Shadows were active between three and four years earlier, in 2253.

Behind the Scenes: Straczynski’s goal with this episode was to knock the smirk off Sheridan and to make him a more layered character with a darker edge; taking him, perhaps, in a similar direction to where Sinclair would have gone if he’d remained on the series.

Boxleitner relished the chance to show Sheridan’s darker side. He noted that he’d played a lot goody two-shoes and that could be a little limiting.

Ed Wasser noted that Morden had always been in control and in charge of the situation. This was the first time his composure cracked, if only a little, and he relished the opportunity to play that moment and layer some more elements into Morden.

Whilst filming the scene where Sheridan says that Morden is supposed to be dead, Ed Wasser dramatically grasped his chest and pretended to pass out.

The scene where Talia sees the Shadows and screams was originally filmed from four or five angles which were supposed to be edited together to create a rapid-cut moment of chaos. The producers decided to edit the moment more straightforwardly.

Andrea Thompson inadvertently slapped Bruce Boxleitner much harder than she’d planned, to the point where he couldn’t remember his next line. Since the scene was filmed as a long one-shot up until that moment, it had to be shot again. Thompson backed off with the slap the second time around. This is why Boxleitner rubs his face ruefully, as he’s actually in some real pain in that moment. When the director suggested a third take, Boxleitner said “No, I don’t think so, I think you have this one” and walked off the set. Thompson later profusely apologised to him.

Prior to this episode, and during discussion of it, Straczynski liked to refer to the Shadows as “Shadowmen”. After this episode he refers to them as “Shadows” almost exclusively.

Familiar Faces: Alex Hyde-White (Pierce Macabee) is the son of Wilfred Hyde-White, a well-known British actor who appeared in many Hollywood TV productions of the 1970s, including Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and the original Battlestar Galactica. Alex Hyde-White was also the son-in-law of Roy Dotrice, who would shortly appear on Babylon 5 as well (in episode B22). Alex Hyde-White himself is arguably best known for playing Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic in Roger Corman’s 1994 movie version of The Fantastic Four. He is also a director, responsible for the 2012 production Three Days of Hamlet, and has his own audiobook production company, Punch Audio.

Review: In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum is an extraordinarily risky episode. It takes all of the cool stuff that’s been happening behind the scenes and explains it all. Well, not all, but it certainly puts most of the show’s cards on the table in a very direct and straightforward way. More to the point, it does it in a very logical and powerful way, framed by Sheridan being pushed to the brink of outright corruption by Morden’s supremely smug attitude and his barely-contained grief for his wife. The set-up of the Nightwatch in the background barely registers as a subplot in an episode that is sold by a fantastic, driven performance by Bruce Boxleitner and a more sinister one from Ed Wasser, not to mention the arrival of Delenn the Exposition Machine (which works really well here, but less so in later episodes). *****

Morden: “If restoring the Centauri Republic means nothing to you, what does? What do you want?”
Vir: “I’d like to live just long enough to be there when they cut off your head and stick it on a pike as a warning to the next ten generations that some favours come with too high a price. I would look up at your lifeless eyes and wave like this.” (waves) “Can you and your associates arrange that for me, Mr. Morden?”

Sheridan: “I won’t have people dying cold and alone on the docking bay floor.”

Morden: “It was months before I could remember my name, let alone file a report. When I was back on my feet, I sent a message to Earth Central. I guess they never received it.”
Sheridan: “You’re a damned liar.”

Sheridan: “You’re not leaving.”
Morden: “You can’t do this.”
Sheridan: “Watch me.”

Sheridan: “139 people died on board the Icarus, Mr. Morden, including my wife. And here you sit, not a scratch. Now something here doesn’t add up. I intend to find out what happened, what really happened.”

Delenn: “The greatest nightmare of our time is waiting for you.”

Kosh: “If you go to Z’ha’dum, you will die.”
Sheridan: “Then I die. But I will not go down easily and I will not go down alone.”

B18: Confessions and Lamentations
Airdates: 24 May 1995 (US), 6 June 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Kevin G. Cremin
Cast: Cast: Dr. Lazarenn (Jim Norton), Ambassador Vershaar (Kim Strauss), Markab Girl (Bluejean Ashley Secrist), Markab Victim (Michael McKenzie), Markab Mother (Diane Adair), Human (Andrew Craig), Bartender (Dan Woren), Doctor (Rosie Malek-Yonan), ISN Reporter (Maggie Egan), Guard (Mike Manzoni)

Plot:    A Markab transport is overdue at the station and Zeta Wing sets out to investigate. They find the transport, but the entire crew and passenger complement is dead. They bring the ship back to Babylon 5 to investigate further. Dr. Franklin’s diagnosis is that some kind of plague killed them all, and links this to four Markabs found dead recently on the station, also from a plague. Dr. Lazarenn, the senior Markab medical expert on board, confesses that the Markab civilisation is under threat from the drafa plague. It appeared centuries ago and wiped out the population of an island noted for its lax morals. The Markabs declared this a sign from the gods and have dedicated themselves to a moral way of life. Now the plague is decimating their homeworld, but they are refusing to go for help to other races for fear of being declared amoral in turn. A horrified Franklin sets to work on investigating the virus, even as the corpses start to mount.

Delenn invites Sheridan to her quarters for a ceremonial Minbari meal in return for him taking her out to dinner a few months ago (episode B7). When the casualties start mounting from the Markab plague Sheridan is forced to quarantine the station, sparking a panic and near-riot. Some Markabs are attacked for harbouring the disease and they decide to isolate themselves from the other races, despite Franklin’s warning that the disease will spread faster amongst them all if they are contained together. Delenn and Lennier go into the quarantine zone to help the sick and dying, despite Sheridan’s strong objections. Delenn tells him that if she dies she will see him again in the place ‘where no shadows fall’.

The drafa plague jumps species and begins infecting the Pak’ma’ra. This gives Franklin a clue as to how the virus works by comparing similarities in the Pak’ma’ra and Markab physiologies. When Lazarenn falls ill Franklin is able to study the course of the virus first-hand and successfully develops a treatment which will at least retard the development of the disease. Unfortunately, Lazarenn dies before he can perfect it. When they open the quarantine zone all the Markabs are dead and a distraught Lennier and Delenn emerge. ISN later reports that the Markab civilisation has been utterly destroyed by the plague with, at best, only a handful of Markabs surviving on their most remote ships and colonies. However, Franklin’s work safeguards the Pak’ma’ra and other species from cross-infection.

The Arc: The destruction of the Markab race is referred to in episode C1 and indirectly provides a clue to the successful resolution of that episode’s crisis.

Delenn refers to seeing a figure in a Minbari temple who told her that he would let no harm come to his little ones in his sacred house. JMS confirms that this was a vision of the Minbari spiritual leader Valen. This also explains what she was saying in A2, “I knew you would come.” Of course, the question is who she was really talking to. We find out in C17.

Although the drafa jumps species and starts killing the Pak’ma’ra, Franklin’s treatment saves the race of carrion-eaters from extinction because they turn up again in episode B22.

Franklin is continuing to use stims, as seen in B17. This will have repercussions in C3 and C15.

Keffer has been using his free time to investigate the alien ship he saw in hyperspace (B4). Sheridan puts two and two together using the information from Delenn and Kosh (B17) and guesses that Keffer’s been investigating a Shadow ship. He orders Keffer to stop these investigations. This directly leads to the events of episode B22.

There is a theme in the series of a hand reaching out. This was first seen in B9 and is seen again here. It will be seen again in B22, C22 and D2.

This episode marks the first appearance (albeit in the background) of the Gaim, a member-race of the League of Non-Aligned Words. Unnamed for the time being, they will start playing a larger role in the series from Season 3 onwards (most notably in episode C15).

Background: Before the plague there were 5,000 Markabs living on Babylon 5. Franklin visited the Markab homeworld during his days hitch-hiking on starships around the galaxy and met Lazarenn there.

The Markab are a religious species; episode B16 confirms that they used psychotropic drugs as part of religious ceremonies. Markab have red blood.

The Minbari have a formal meal ritual that takes two days to prepare. For these meals, they keep one seat empty in preperation for the return of their prophet, Valen.

The Markab death toll is at least 2 billion dead on their homeworld and 2-3 million dead on their colonies and other ships.

References: Dr. Franklin says, with great conviction, that the Black Death wiped out three-quarters of the population of Europe in the 14th Century. This is a bit of an exaggeration; the Black Death was utterly devastating but the true casualty count is more likely to have been one-third of the population.

The Minbari meal ritual is very similar to the Jewish story and ritual practice of Passover, down to the space being left for the return of a major figure (Valen standing in for Elijah).

Lazarenn and Franklin briefly touching the glass window at the same time may be a reference to the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or just a moment of shared companionship.

Although not named in dialogue in this episode, the Gaim are a nod to Straczynski’s friend and sometime collaborator Neil Gaiman. The Gaim wear a breathing helmet heavily inspired by the on regularly worn by Morpheus in Gaiman’s comic series The Sandman.

Unanswered Questions: Is the extermination of the Markabs at the precise moment the Shadows are re-emerging a coincidence?

Mistakes, Retcons and Lamentations: In this episode a Starfury sensor system can distinguish between live and dead Markabs, but in episode A2 could not distinguish between a live and dead Soul Hunter. It’s possible that the Starfury sensors have been upgraded, or that Zeta Wing’s fighters are more advanced than the older Alpha and Delta Wing fighters.

The Markab ship left the Markab homeworld nine days ago, but episode C1 confirms that the Markab system is only a few hours from Babylon 5. It’s likely that the Markab liner took in a more circuitous route taking in other colonies and waystops before heading on to Babylon 5.

Babylon 5 is now permanently infected with the drafa plague. Franklin’s treatment presumably helps the Pak’ma’ra and other at-risk species, but it still seems a bit of a knock against Babylon 5’s reputation. Are other races potentially at risk from drafa warned off from ever travelling to the station?

Behind the Scenes: Straczynski decided to kill off one of the League races to deliver an emotional shock. He considered the Drazi, but felt they’d already been focused on a fair bit. He needed it to be a sympathetic and relatable race, which ruled out the Pak’ma’ra. The Markab were the logical choice, as their make-up allowed for much more expression and emotion than other races.

This ability to make this episode was based in how many Markab face masks and costumes could be made. Ann Brucie (costumers) and John Vulich (make-up) went the extra mile with their departments and were able to put more than fifty extras in front of the camera.

Filming over fifty extras in heavy make-up and costumes in a hot studio resulted in unexpected side-effects, especially given that many of the non-speaking Markab masks did not have a mouth for the speed of casting. Bill Mumy recalled that one extra threw up in his mask, to everyone’s horror.

J. Michael Straczynski was mildly irritated that a lot of people – including some of the show’s own actors like Mira Furlan – thought he was writing an AIDS parable. He really wanted to write something more about tribalism, people preferring ignorance over fact, the rejection of science in favour of superstition and the destructive instincts of blame culture.

During the Minbari meal scene, Boxleitner and Mumy became obsessed with the Minbari word “flarn” and started substituting it in every Beatles song they could think of. The crew were initially amused but, some hours of set-ups and takes later, were rather less so.

Bruce Boxleitner is left-handed but this is one of the relatively few episodes where it’s clearly visible (when he’s eating).

Familiar Faces: Jim Norton (Dr. Lazarenn) previously played Ombuds Wellington in episodes A15 and A21. After filming this episode he would become well-known for playing Bishop Brennan on the classic sitcom Father Ted.

Diane Adir (Markab Mother) previously played Mila Shar in episode A7.

Review: What starts off as a middle-of-the-road, disposable, Star Trek-ish stand-alone episode rapidly and rather unexpectedly increases in stakes moment by moment. The 44 minute time limit means this crisis feels like it’s unfolding on speed, but this adds to the unrelenting bleakness and the fast-raising stakes. Mira Furlan has always been one of the strongest performers on the show but here she moves into a league of her own, delivering a powerful, devastated performance (with Bill Mumy and Boxleitner keeping pace). Richard Biggs also gives his best performance so far, as he is forced to watch his friend die and confront the knowledge that he had the answer just not fast enough. Jim Norton gives an outstanding performance as Dr. Lazarenn, delivering a fantastic performance through layers of makeup. Finally, the music is absolutely outstanding. Christopher Franke is often content to deliver variations on old themes if the episode is not a really strong one, but he is clearly massively inspired here and gives one of his best scores of the entire series. *****

Delenn: “I didn’t know that similarity was required for the exercise of compassion.”

Delenn: “All life is transitory; a dream. We all come together in the same place at the end of time. If I don’t see you again here, I will see you in a little while in the place where no Shadows fall.”

Lazarenn: “It does seem to be the rule, doesn’t it? Analyse the problem, choose whatever strategy makes least sense and then do it.”

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