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Thursday, 29 December 2016

Babylon 5 1-20: Babylon Squared

Episode:20|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:10-Aug-1994

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm sharing my thoughts on Babylon Squared, the 20th episode of Babylon 5's first season.

Babylon Squared is notable for a number of reasons: the name kind of looks like 'Babylon 5' if you take the 'QUARED' bit off, it's one of only three episodes in the whole five year run with a 'Q' in it, and it's really really important for the ongoing arc. This is one of the big episodes in the first year that puts the foundations down for later seasons to build on. Doesn't mean that it's going to be good mind you, but I don't remember disliking it. In fact I'm optimistic.

In a shocking adherence to tradition, I'm going to show a bunch of screencaps from the episode, write a bit of text explaining what's happening and make some snarky comments. This means there's going to be SPOILERS all over the place, even for episodes that aired earlier, though I won't even hint at anything that happens after it.



The episode begins in the station's mess hall, with an awesome projected clock on the wall in the background. Oh wait, that can't be a clock, not unless it has 24 hours on it. I'm disappointed now.

C&C woke Lt. Commander Ivanova up an hour early when they picked up some tachyon emissions and she's not dealing with it well. She's not a morning person. Commander Sinclair and Security Chief Garibaldi are doing fine though.

In fact Sinclair loves mornings and decides to tell Ivanova a story of the three years he spent being taught by Jesuits. He used to wake up every day at 5 am for sunrise mass and then afterwards there'd be meditation. Breathing in... breathing out... breathing in... breathing out...

Sinclair's soothing words get Ivanova to doze off again, giving Garibaldi his chance to swap their food with some empty bowls to make it look like they've been eating way longer than they have. Hey, where'd those other bowls come from? Was this a premeditated prank?

Ivanova wakes up, calls C&C to apologise for being late, and rushes out.

"I'll notify your next of kin," Sinclair assures Garibaldi, as he collects his breakfast and sneaks off somewhere out of sight. It's funny how Babylon 5's so scared of Star Trek-style technobabble that they had start with a whole comedy sketch to slip that one sciency word into the episode.

It's also funny that this was actually kind of funny. They're getting better with their comedy.

A short while later Starfury Alpha 7 has finished its three hour journey to the source of the tachyon emissions where the pilot discovers an indistinct glowing thing that becomes clearer the more he stares directly at it.

"That can't be it just can't be, AGGHHH!" he yells just before getting a blinding flash of light in the face.

I'm not sure that there's even a right way to read that line, but if there is the actor didn't find it.


ACT ONE.


In the B plot, Ambassador Delenn is taking her ship out somewhere, without a pilot. She explains that some things you have to do alone, but really I think she's just ashamed that her control panel looks like a failed school project and doesn't want anyone to see it. This is the second worst control panel I've ever seen in a sci-fi series, and I've seen some classic Doctor Who.

That's a cool velvet harness though.

As Delenn enters the jumpgate, Starfury Alpha 7 returns from the source of the tachyon emission, but it's not docking. It's not even doing that thing where it automatically matches the rotation of the station.

Weirdest of all, it seems to have gotten a respray while it was out, as that green camo art on the top doesn't match how it looked in the teaser.

But on the scanner the art's gone back to how it was again. Also I have a sudden urge to play some 'TIE Fighter' again. It's a shame they never got that Babylon 5 video game made.

By the way, the important bit of this readout is the part that says 'life signs negative'.

Dr. Franklin's taking the episode off so Garibaldi has to report the cause of death. Or at least list off a few things that didn't kill him. There was no shock, no trauma, no damage to the body. The best they can tell, he set his fighter to return back to the station on autopilot then died of old age.

Kind of puts Ivanova's breakfast time skipping problems into perspective.

I can believe it though, as it must have taken the pilot actual years to etch "B4" that deep into his metal buckle. Seems kind of strange that he couldn't just record a log on his Starfury's computer.

Ivanova wonders if it's B4 for Babylon 4, the space station that went missing without a trace four years ago (as mentioned in Grail a few episodes back). Sinclair thinks she might be on to something, seeing as his fighter was travelling back from the sector of space the station was constructed in. Why they built the place three hours from the nearest jumpgate I've no idea.

Well at least the pilot didn't die in vain, as he's given them crucial information about Babylon 4's potential re-emergence.

Just then they receive a distress call... it's from Babylon 4! Sorry Alpha 7, your death turned out to be equally as pointless as all that time you spent etching B4 into a buckle.

They check the call's security code to to verify it's not someone screwing with them, but it's definitely the B4 station... and the date stamp is from four years ago.


ACT TWO.


They still don't know what's waiting for them at Babylon 4's location, but Sinclair's going to get all his pilots and go on a full scale rescue mission to get the construction crews off before it vanishes again. He technically gives them the opportunity to back out, but there's no way anyone's going to do that in front of all these other pilots

Personally if one of my pilots came back dead I'd probably look into ways to stop it happening again before sending the rest of them, I don't care how stable the tachyon emissions are now. If this was Star Trek the science officer would've tech'd up a shiny grey thing that straps onto their arm and keeps them safe by now. I know they don't like technobabble on Babylon 5, but they could at give them some... anti-aging cream or something.

By the way I love that there's no heroic music for this scene, or any music at all in fact. It would've likely ended up sounding cheesy.

And so our heroes set out on a three hour journey in a fleet of shuttles to evacuate Babylon 4. Well Sinclair, Garibaldi and a whole lot of nameless pilots anyway. There aren't a lot of main cast members showing up this week, only the the three command officers that are in every episode of season one, plus Delenn.

Speaking of Delenn, she's just met up with one of those giant Minbari War Cruisers that captured Sinclair back in the Earth-Minbari War 10 years ago, as seen in And the Sky Full of Stars. They look a lot better when they're not in dreamlike flashback footage.

Meanwhile Sinclair and Garibaldi are still on their long shuttle ride.

Hey the shuttle cockpit looks a little different than it did back in A Voice in the Wilderness. Though I suppose that makes sense, as they're in the boxy kind of shuttle, not the kind with wings.

It's an hour into the trip and Garibaldi's bored, so he starts throwing out questions to his boss. Things like:
"It's morning, you're getting ready to go to work, you pull on your pants. Do you fasten and then zip or zip and then fasten?"
The look on Sinclair's face is half confusion, half horror at the dawning realisation that he's going to suffer another two hours of this. He's a very serious, thoughtful man who likes to read Tennyson and punch people, and this conversation just got way too personal and trivial for him. He eventually gives him his answer (fasten then zip) but draws the line at his next question about socks. 1 hour 57 minutes left.

Meanwhile, back in Delenn's story...

Whoa is that a brand new set? An actual new set that isn't just Sinclair's office or the central corridor with the furniture moved around a bit? That makes this is the second episode in a row where a character genuinely gets to visit somewhere different. The production crew must have found some money beneath their sofa cushions this week.

This very tall corridor is located inside the Minbari War Cruiser, and the interior's looking a lot brighter than it did during Sinclair's flashback in And the Sky Full of Stars. All we saw of the ship then was a black void with a couple of spotlights.

Oh there you go.

This is the Grey Council, the Minbari government, of which Delenn is secretly a member. Well it's a secret to the people on Babylon 5 anyway, I'm sure a few Minbari must know who's leading them.

They've called her back from her undercover role on Babylon 5 because it's been a full ten cycles since the death of her mentor Dukhat and... hang on, weren't cycles about a minute long back in Grail? Anyway it's been ten cycles and they've finally got around to voting for a new leader. Turns out that they've voted for her!

She's kind of annoyed about this as she's on a mission right now, insisting that she's guided by a prophecy. Prophecy will attend to itself, they counter, which I suppose is a fair point. Unless it's one of those multiple choice prophecies where you have to deliberately do X to avoid outcome Y. Anyway, someone else will be chosen to replace her as ambassador to Babylon 5, because she has to stay here from now on to rule her people.


ACT THREE.


Sinclair and Garibaldi have finally reached Babylon 4! Took them long enough, we're nearly halfway through the episode.

Babylon 4 was constructed back when the Earth Alliance had a bit more cash and faith in the project, so it's larger, better equipped and basically superior to Babylon 5 in every way (aside from the slipping through time issue). It's also green instead of blue, so it seems every time one of these stations blows up or disappears they move along to the next colour in the rainbow for the replacement.

So Sinclair could've been governing a much more impressive space colony if it wasn't for inexplicable time weirdness. Though actually I'm not entirely sure about that, as Signs and Portents revealed that the Minbari arranged for him to get the job as a condition of their support for B5... but B4 didn't need outside funding to get finished, so maybe the Minbari weren't asked to provide a degree of support that'd entitle them to a veto on the choice of commander back then. It's all a bit vague so I dunno.

Sinclair and Garibaldi head into the station first to make sure it's safe and almost immediately end up in a brief action scene against a lunatic with a pistol who feels like the best way off the station is to murder his rescuers.

Major Krantz soon arrives to take custody of his lunatic. He's not the station commander, he's just here to supervise the final stages of construction, and he reacts with understandable shock when they tell him they're from Babylon 5 ("Babylon 5 you say?"). I suppose it is a bit implausible that they kept building Babylon stations even after losing the first 4.

Suddenly there's a flash and Sinclair finds himself back on Babylon 5 with Garibaldi, in the middle of a crisis. People are running and screaming, security officers are shooting at no one in particular and something's cutting through the hull to get in.

Garibaldi explains that he's rigged the station's fusion reactors to blow and he's going to stay behind with his big-ass gun to buy people time to escape. So the security chief has all the clearance needed to blow up the entire station on his own?

Sinclair's swept away (very unconvincingly) by the tide of people while he's trying to process this, and Garibaldi goes out like a hero, yelling "TAKE SOME, TAKE SOME!" as he fires his gun at unseen assailants. Producer JMS was apparently a bit annoyed afterwards when he found out about this ad-libbed impersonation of Hudson from Aliens.

And then he's back on B4 again, realising that he's just had a vision of the future. Sinclair has already received a vision of the station exploding back in Signs and Portents thanks to a precognitive Centauri and the two visions match up pretty well, so he's apparently still on track to meet a terrible fate.

After Major Krantz explains that they've "BECOME UNSTUCK IN TIME!!!" we cut back to Delenn and her friend from the Grey Council walking down the darkest corridor on the ship.

Delenn reveals that she doesn't want to be leader, and not just because it apparently means spending the rest of her life in the pitch black council chamber, having to cook in the dark and find her way to the bathroom with a flashlight. The main reason she has to reject their calling is because her heart is telling her to stay on Babylon 5.

Her friend points out that in over a thousand years, no one has refused! She also mentions that she wants to reconvene the council and tell them something. Her friend points out that it has never been done! Honestly it's starting to seem like Delenn was born with a mutant gene that gives her the unique power to ignore tradition. The others don't even know what's happening here.

Back on Babylon 4, Major Krantz reveals that the time weirdness started 24 hours after the station went operational.

Then this guy materialised in the conference room, so they took him prisoner.

His name is Zathras and they've never seen a creature like him before (personally I'm thinking... scruffy looking human). He tells them that The One is hurt and he must help him. He explains that's here because he needs the biggest of all the Babylon stations as a base of operations in a terrible war. They're fighting to save the galaxy on the side of light under the command of The One, and they need to pull the station through time if they want to want to win. Zathras is vague though about whether he's taking it to the past or the future.

So that's kind of interesting.

Suddenly they're called out of Zathras's cell because "it's back" and Zathras sees his chance to walk straight out of the open door. What, are the guards experiencing a 10 second flash to the future or something? How is it possible that two people standing opposite the only door with their backs against the wall and nothing to look at but a weird-ass prisoner were too slow to catch him running outside?

Zathras catches up to the others and explains what they're seeing.

It is The One, Zathras's boss, and he seems to be fading in and out of reality right now. This is all getting very Tholian Web.

I'm disappointed really. When I heard his name I was expecting to see someone in a black trenchcoat and sunglasses, not a spacesuit borrowed from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well 2010: The Year We Make Contact to be totally pedantic about it. Kubrick had all the 2001 props destroyed after filming to avoid precisely this from happening.


ACT FOUR.


Zathras explains that The One's in pain right now, possibly due to something he did to keep the station here long enough for them to escape. He deliberately brought it here so that they could evacuate the crew to Babylon 5.

If this was Star Trek someone would be whipping out a tricorder right now to figure out what's going on with him (I'm thinking temporal destabilisation caused by a phase-shifted chronoton flux in his midichlorians), but the best Sinclair can do is go over and give him a hand.

This turns out to be a mistake. So now they've learned not to touch translucent people.

Those two guards from earlier turn around to watch Sinclair flying through the crates, giving Zathras another chance to escape. This time he's running over to give The One a device he needs to disappear entirely. I suppose disappearing is good in this case.

Zathras then runs up to the curved end of the corridor and apparently realises that it's a fake background, as he doubles back and gets caught. It was such a comically bad escape attempt that I'm going to assume he got caught deliberately.

On the Minbari ship, Delenn has gathered the council to explain why she doesn't want to be trapped in this room for the rest of her life.
"This council stopped the war against the humans because of prophecy. Because Valen said that the humans, some among them, had a destiny that we could not interfere with. It was my place to study them, to determine if the prophecy was correct. I have not yet finished that task."
Oh damn, the truth behind the Minbari surrender and Delenn's undercover mission on Babylon 5 has been revealed!

But then she goes on an eye-rolling 'humans are special' speech. "Their only weakness is that they do not recognise their greatness." C'mon Delenn I realise you're trying to win the crowd over to your way of thinking, but it rings a little false when one of the humans stabbed and branded your friend a few months back and it hasn't been long since they tried to assassinate their own President.

The others tell her that if she leaves again she might lose her place on the Grey Council, but she doesn't seem to care much about that position anyway.

On Babylon 4 Zathras explains that he gave The One a time stabiliser to help him survive the next time jump. Without it he'd end up like Alpha 7 back in the teaser when he got too close during their arrival. See, I said they needed a shiny Star Trek tech device to protect them! But without a time stabiliser of his own Zathras is doomed. Krantz wants to take him with them as he's the only evidence he's got to back up his story of what happened, but Zathras doesn't think that's a great idea.
"Zathras not of this time. You take, Zathras die. You leave, Zathras die. Either way it is bad for Zathras."
By the way, the ceiling of the interrogation room is a scruffy alien mothership. This is really strange because sets in Babylon 5 don't tend to have ceilings.

Meanwhile Garibaldi's helping to manage the evacuation. No 'women and children first' this time, it's whoever's pushed their way closest to the gate. It's funny how this comes just one episode after Garibaldi escaped having to manage an evacuation of Babylon 5 in A Voice in the Wilderness. Plus I suppose he escaped managing it in Sinclair's flashforward as well by getting himself killed.

I just hope they remember to get that lunatic who took a shot at them earlier when they first arrived, or else he's taking a one-way trip through time to a terrible war with The One and friends.

Suddenly Garibaldi has his own flash, this time to a completely new looking set, somewhere in his past.

He's back on Mars, listening to his girlfriend Lise give him an ultimatum. She's not going to leave the planet, so he can either accept Sinclair's offer and take the job on Babylon 5 or he can stay with her, but he can't have both. He ended up choosing the Babylon 5 job (obviously), but in the last episode he learned that Lise ended up marrying someone else and now he must be wondering about the road not taken.

But before he can really say much he flashes back to the present, with the timeline just as he left it.

The scene doesn't tell us anything we don't already know, but it does confirm that the flashes are showing actual events and it torments Garibaldi some more and that's always good. Also wow, Lise Hampton makes another appearance! It gives me hope that maybe we'll see Sinclair's girlfriend Catherine Sakai again this season after she vanished without trace a dozen episodes ago.

As the station starts slipping back in time, Krantz and the others rush to the shuttles, but poor doomed Zathras is pinned by a falling beam along the way. If The One is planning to use this station in a war he's going to have to fix it up a bit when it gets there.

Sinclair struggles to free the weird alien as he tries to talk him out of it, telling him that he has a destiny. Hey that's what Delenn keeps saying! Sinclair seems transfixed by the station collapsing around him though and it takes Garibaldi to snap him out of it and drag him to the shuttle. He's just in time too, as a box leaps over from off camera to get him.

Poor doomed Zathras might not be as doomed as he thought though, as The One turns up to save him from the pillar (or maybe just watch him die if there really is no saving him).

As the last shuttle escapes Babylon 4 and the station disappears, the man in the spacesuit finally removes his helmet, revealing himself to be...

...a grey-haired, scarred Jeffrey Sinclair! And future Delenn was there the whole time working with him! Well her nose and left hand was anyway, we don't see any more of her than that. So now we know that Sinclair's destined to be a time-travelling space station thief who will lead the forces of light in a great war to save the galaxy, and that's pretty metal. Also very John Connor, with that scar on his face.
"I tried to warn them, but it all happened just the way I remembered."
I guess Sinclair was commander of B4 after all. The guy just wants all the Babylon stations to himself.


ACT FIVE.


As Delenn's walking the corridors of the Grey Council ship, her friend catches up to her with a gift. It's a Triluminary, like the one they used to scan Sinclair in the flashbacks of And the Sky Full of Stars. It's apparently an important object to them, but her friend assures her that they still have two more and she'll need it more than they do.

"We are surrounded by signs and portents and I feel a darkness pressing at our backs," he tells her, dropping the season title.

Then there's a scene back on Babylon 5 where Sinclair chats to Ivanova about Babylon 4, pointing out that they don't know where in time the station's going, so they may actually see it again. So she volunteers to take Garibaldi's place next time, because she's crazy.


CONCLUSION

A surprising amount of nothing happens in this episode and everything we learn just raises ten more questions, but Babylon Squared is exactly what this series needed right now.

After a season of hints about the hole in Sinclair's mind and why the Minbari are so interested in him, we finally get a straight answer: Valen's prophecy says that certain humans have a destiny, and they're keeping an eye on him to see how true that is. I'm not sure why they had to put him in charge of a space station for this though. Maybe they wanted to put him somewhere with influence to see what ripples he caused, or maybe it'd just made him easier to observe. We don't know if the prophecy actually tells the Minbari what Sinclair's destiny might be, but the episode shows us it anyway: he's going to become a spacestation-stealing hero leading the side of light in a war to save the galaxy! And Delenn's going to be in on the plan! And so's some weird Zathras guy! The series is really giving huge spoilers for itself here.

Though the trouble with building an episode around things that may or may not happens years from now, is that it only really works if the audience has faith that it'll get a proper follow up down the line. TV series like Heroes have worked their asses off to ruin the trope in the meantime, and it was a big question hanging over the series even back when it was airing. But I've seen the the entire series and I know exactly where it's going, so I was able to enjoy it fully this time around.

I was expecting more of the flash forwards and flashbacks though. Sinclair saw Garibaldi's last stand and Garibaldi saw Lise, and that's it. Aren't things supposed to come in threes in TV episodes? I suppose old Sinclair could count as the final flash forward, and it's the most important as it's less of a premonition of what may happen and more of an absolute fact. Babylon 5's existence depends on Babylon 4 disappearing, so Sinclair has to eventually steal it. There's no changing that.

It's probably for the best that he did though, as I'm not sure I'd want to watch a Babylon 4 series, with the corridors all lit up with those green fluorescent lights; it wasn't a happy looking place. It was nice to see a couple of new sets show up though and the production team did a good job of making the old ones look sinister. By the way if you're keeping track of all the coincidental similarities with Deep Space Nine, you can now add 'episode set on creepy looking sister station' to the list.

I thought the direction was good too, though some of the acting wasn't so great. It seems that excessive exposure to time flashes can drain an actor's ability to deliver lines well. Or maybe it's proximity to Zathras, as I can totally believe he was leeching away their acting powers to fuel his own eccentric performance. Whatever was going on, it really reinforced just how important Jerry Doyle as Garibaldi is to this series, as he makes him the most human of the human characters, and helps bring some normality with him wherever he goes, in space or time.

So yeah, this is 100% a must-watch episode, as it introduces time-travel, sheds more light on Delenn's secret agenda, reveals what happened to Babylon 4 and shows what Sinclair's destiny actually is. It's the third essential episode in a row in fact, so season one's really starting to pick up in its second half. I've still got TKO stalking me though, waiting for the right time to pounce.


Babylon 5 will return with The Quality of Mercy. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm looking back on what I've watched during 2016!

Leave a comment if you've got one.

4 comments:

  1. His name is Zathras and they've never seen a creature like him before (personally I'm thinking... scruffy looking human).

    It occurs to me that Zathras looks a lot like those feral humanoids -- were they human? -- the Doctor encountered in a Welsh quarry at the end of time in "Utopia". I had a similar thought about them; the grand threat to humanity's survival is a bunch of people with piercings and fur coats?

    I remember loving this episode when it was first shown on Channel 4; I'm always a big fan of time travel stories, and with B5 having one consistent story there was always a chance they would follow up on it and all the, er, signs and portents becoming significant later on. That made it exciting, and as I recall, it did all pay off.

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  2. Wait, Babylon 4... B4... before. Shit, that's a pun isn't it? Took me a few decades but I got it in the end.

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  3. "The series is really giving huge spoilers for itself here."
    Straczynski often said he was perfectly okay showing the audience bits of the future, because HOW they got there and in what CONTEXT were where the true stories lay. Time travel and prophecy are tricky things, but Straczynski knew what he was doing.
    Well, mostly.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, I can't complain with the results. It's doubly impressive considering all the problems along the way that should've thrown his 5 year story plan way off track... and did.

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