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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Babylon 5 2-03: The Geometry of Shadows

Episode:25|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:16-Nov-1994

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm ankle deep into the second season of cult sci-fi epic Babylon 5, watching the third episode: The Geometry of Shadows.

The title makes it seem like it should be a big episode in the overall arc, seeing as the season is called The Coming of Shadows, but I don't think that's the case. In fact I've got a strong feeling that this is the one with the wizards and the eternal conflict of green vs. purple. Either way I'm sure it'll be watchable as it's the first episode to be directed by Mike Vejar, who became one of the series' top tier directors. I'm expecting interesting shots this time and I'll be disappointed if I don't get them.

This is yet another episode written by series creator J. Michael Straczynski, but he took a break after this one to let other writers like D.C. Fontana and Peter David have a turn. They came a time where he went entirely insane and decided to write all 22 episodes each year by himself, but at this point he was only writing half of them, like in season one. So he was only half crazy.

Alright I'm going to take screencaps and write my commentary underneath, so expect SPOILERS for everything up to and including this episode. Speaking of spoilers and commentary, this is one of the few episodes to actually get a DVD commentary track, by actors Bruce Boxleitner, Jerry Doyle and Claudia Christian (the full command staff). It pretty good if you want to hear three people joking around and enjoying themselves for 40 minutes while saying very little about what they're watching, but they do mention a few things about later episodes, so you should probably stay well clear if you haven't seen the entire five years yet.



Now that Delenn's new half-human appearance has been revealed I finally get to talk about the season two DVD menu! It all looks fairly harmless at first (except for Delenn new face being given away right on the menu screen), but if you leave it on for few seconds...

... it gets very disturbing very quickly.

How did anyone think that this was a good idea? B5 was one of the most highly acclaimed and influential science fiction TV series of the 90s (don't laugh, it was), and this the respect the DVD folks give it?

I don't know, maybe it's a reference to the changeling net from the pilot that let the user morph into other characters. Not any of these characters though; most of these people weren't even in the pilot. Oh duh, I haven't really introduced people to the cast yet!

There's drunk ambassador Dr. Londo Franklin, vengeful yet naive Narnbari aide G'Lennier, compassionate and mysterious half-Centauri Virlenn, and cynical but cheerful Captain Susan Sheridan. Plus there's a surprise appearance by Psi Corps agent Bester Garibaldi, who's somehow weaselled his way into the cast photo.

And of course cryptic telepathic ambassador Talia Kosh, who's a lot like regular Kosh except with less screen time and a fear of elevators.

Man, poor Talia Winters never gets any respect.

The episode starts with Garibaldi in Medlab getting a physical evaluation due that life threatening gunshot wound he took a few weeks back in Chrysalis. Dr. Franklin thinks that he should probably be able to return to work in a couple of days, though it’s hard to tell when his patient keeps downplaying how much pain he’s in.

Garibaldi’s not sure either, about whether he even wants to go back to work. He doesn't know if he's qualified to be head of security after failing to spot a traitor right under his nose.

Wow, Londo's got himself a new window in his quarters, with a nice view of the station's curvy interior. They've really upgraded a lot of the sets for this season.

There's something interesting going on in front of the windows too, as Londo's got Vir giving him a haircut. Also this is the very first appearance of scheming Centauri aristocrat Lord Refa! Sure the Centauri apparently all scheming aristocrats, that's basically their gimmick, but he operates at the highest levels. Plus I’m not sure I appreciated this the first time I saw the episode, but the actor is actually mimicking Londo’s made up alien accent and he’s doing a good job of it. That seems really rare for sci-fi, I feel like 'posh English' is about as alien as most guest actors will go.

Refa’s here because Londo inexplicably ‘dealt with’ the Narn outpost in Quadrant 37 three weeks ago and now he sees him as a potential ally (or at least an asset he can use). He reveals that he intends to take the Centauri throne, which must be giving Londo deja-vu as scheming Centauri aristocrat Lord Kiro had a similar idea in mind last year in Signs and Portents. He tried to talk Kiro out of it back then (and he was right to, as the man got utterly played by his associates), but this time around he's going to pledge his support. Londo's got his ambition back and he’s going to make things happen.

Meanwhile, down in the Zocalo, two Drazi gangs cross paths and proceed to beat the crap out of each other. Well, throw each other onto tables anyway.

They won’t rest until there’s a Drazi bouncing off every table in the market, so security has to rush in to intervene. And that's the end of the teaser.

We have a new Delenn in the opening credits! Unless you're watching the region 1 DVDs in which case they've been spoiling her new appearance for the last two episodes.


ACT ONE


Act one begins with Londo down in the customs area seeing Lord Refa off, when he spots actor Michael Ansara strolling past wearing a cloak wired up like a circuit board. The guy's a human ‘technomage’, basically a space wizard that's into EDM, and Londo explains to Vir that catching sight of one is very rare. Seeing two at a time is considered a bad omen and now they've just watched three of them just enter the station.

Cut to a nice shot of Sheridan’s office/briefing room from outside the new window they installed this season. It’s taken over a year but we finally get to see what the room’s ceiling looks like! It kind of bothers me though that the window isn’t entirely symmetrical; it's just a little bit curvier in the top right corner.

Captain Sheridan is a bit concerned about the Drazi beating each other senseless in the corridors of his station, so he tasks Lieutenant Commander Ivanova with resolving it for him. She usually just runs C&C and tells people how to dock their ships, but he feels that it’s time for her to take on more responsibility… considering that she’s just been promoted to Commander Ivanova! I suppose that's one upside to Sinclair being exiled to Minbar, she's got room to move up, though it does mean they'll have to update the opening credits again.

At first she’s as delighted as she is shocked by the news, but then she remembers that she has to deal with the Drazi now. And she has to do it diplomatically, without any yelling or intimidation. This is the kind of crap that made her utterly miserable during the week she was in command.

Vir tracks down Londo at a bar to remind him of an appointment, but the ambassador's not in the mood right now. He asks Vir if he believes in fate, which turns out to be a mistake, as his attaché goes on to explain exactly what he believes in for a full 30 seconds until he eventually snaps and asks for a yes or no answer.

Londo tells him that the first Centauri emperor consulted three technomages to get their blessing before taking the throne, and there just happens to be three technomages here right now. Refa mentioned that the folks back home are waiting for a sign and getting their blessing would certainly qualify, helping him gain more influence.

But of course it's Vir who's going to be the one who has to talk them into it. He's scared out of his mind at the idea, but Londo's scary too, so all he can do is have a drink and deal with it. Trouble is that he's not a big drinker, so a single glass immediately sends him falling floorwards. Not sure that pure slapstick was the best way to end that scene.

Then it cuts straight from the comedy to Garibaldi, who's taking the ammo out of his gun then plugging it back in again over and over, while contemplating the kinds of things that a man playing with a loaded pistol alone in a dark room contemplates.

Fortunately Sheridan drops by to pay him a visit and offer him his job back, explaining that he'd been waiting for him to come to him. Garibaldi thinks it would be easier if he resigned and moved on, but Sheridan picks the gun off the table and puts it back in its holster, saying that the universe doesn’t give any points for doing things that are easy. I have to admit, I don't think I caught on to what was being implied here the first time I watched this episode. Maybe it didn't just occur to me that they'd actually go that dark with it.

Over in the council chamber, Ivanova has gathered a number of Drazi, including their leaders of the two groups, with the intent of working out their differences peacefully. Unfortunately there aren’t any differences of opinion here. Every five years the Drazi each pull a sash out of a barrel, either purple or green, and then the two sides fight for dominance. Whoever gets the leader sash gets to be leader and their only agenda is to beat the other side into submission.

So Ivanova’s up against a traditional ritual with no possible diplomatic solution that’s been going on for thousands of years. I wonder if Sheridan knew about this before giving her the job.

One thing that I didn’t know about before watching this the first time is that actress Claudia Christian had broken her foot, so she probably couldn't walk while they were filming this scene. And yet she takes a few steps anyway

But all Ivanova gets for her efforts in the end is a riot and a broken foot. In retrospect, taking the sash off a Purple Drazi and putting it on a Green Drazi might have been an error of judgement.

Meanwhile, Vir goes to visit the technomages to arrange that meeting with Ambassador Mollari.

But he ends up confronted by a giant CGI demon instead.

It’s fair to say that Babylon 5's CGI really hasn’t held up and this becomes more obvious when they’re showing 3D rendered creatures. But the episode was made just a year after Jurassic Park on a tiny television budget in a tight schedule, so it’s impressive they got anything done. Plus to be fair it's a probably a computer generated character in universe as well; some kind of hologram like Keffer's girlfriend in Points of Departure.

Damn, I remembered his name instantly just then. I'm genuinely shocked that I didn't have to look it up.


ACT TWO


Vir has nerve enough to hold his ground until Michael Ansara turns up to dispel his hologram. He reveals that his name is Elric and he ain’t giving Londo anything. The technomages are leaving soon to head beyond the galactic rim, to a place where money and political power will do them no good, so they cannot be bought. Also:
“There is an old saying: do not try the patience of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.”
Hey, that’s not a saying, you took that from The Lord of the Rings!

I really don’t like that shirt he's wearing by the way. I think I get what they're going for: a pattern that's inspired by circuitry without actually being real functional wiring, but it looks too scruffy and tangled for me.

Ivanova’s having even worse luck with her job, as the Green Drazi have upped the ante and have started outright murdering Purple Drazi. But they can’t arrest them for it as they're only harming other Drazi and everything they’re doing is legal on their world! Those crazy alien cultures and their wacky traditions.


ACT THREE


In the briefing room, Sheridan and Elric are in the middle of a strangely heated discussion about the 100 technomages that have turned up at the station and where they plan to go, when Londo interrupts. He's here to help Sheridan deal with technomages, as his people have had experience with them, though that's really just an excuse to let him talk with Elric.

But the man immediately sees right through Londo's incredibly obvious charade and accuses him of trying to use Sheridan, mentioning that Vir came over to set up a meeting earlier. Londo outright denies this, calling Elric a liar, which seems like the absolute worst way to get the technomages to endorse him…

…especially as Elric recorded the entire conversation with Vir! Londo is outraged about his aide being filmed without his knowledge, which is slightly hypocritical considering that he just bugged Sheridan’s office to film Elric blessing him.

Of course Elric’s probably been recording this conversation as well, but Sheridan’s been angry enough at him already in this scene, so he redirects his anger to Londo instead. And when Elric reveals (and then blows up) Londo’s bug, Sheridan redirects the ambassador right out of his office.

We’ve seen enough of the briefing room now, so Elric and Sheridan decide to take their conversation out into the market, where they can check out the stuff the prop people have bought to decorate the set this week.

Sheridan still needs to know what the technomages are doing here and where they're going, but Elric's an overly secretive wizard type, so first he asks him a question: does he believe in magic? Sheridan tries to find a diplomatic way of admitting that he hasn't believed in magic since he was 12 and ends up invoking Clarke's Third Law (the writer Arthur C. Clarke, not their President Clark), saying that if people saw a station like Babylon 5 a thousand years ago they'd think that it must be magic.

Elric replies that maybe it is magic, magic of the human heart. Focused and made manifest by technology. You'd think that line would come off as incredibly cheesy, but Ansara pulls it off. Though that was easy compared to what JMS gave him to say next:
ELRIC
We are dreamers, shapers, singers and makers. We study the mysteries of laser and circuit, crystal and scanner, holographic demons and invocations of equations. These are the tools we employ and we know many things.


SHERIDAN
Such as?


ELRIC
The true secrets. The important things. Fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever. Seven words to make them go without pain. How to say goodbye to a friend who is dying. How to be poor. How to be rich. How to rediscover dreams when the world has stolen them from you.
Damn JMS! Turns out that it takes over a hundred words to convince a space station commander to get his nose out of your business though.

Elric's group feels that if any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then they can use it to be indistinguishable from a wizard. But now they’re going away to preserve what they've learned and prevent it from being used for evil. Because “there is a storm coming”, and by ‘storm’ I think he means ‘black spider spaceships’. You'd think that a Tolkien fan like him would know that he's supposed to sail away forever after the great war.

The conversation ends with Elric handing Sheridan some magically generated orange blossom, as the fruit-obsessed captain mentioned it earlier in the conversation. It's left a mystery how he got it, but I guess technomages must have a tiny replicator hidden in their pants.

Meanwhile, Ivanova has hobbled down to the Green Drazi stronghold to try to talk some sense into them and find a way that they can carry out their traditional competition without literally killing each other in the name of natural selection.

But the Green Drazi leader reveals that he’s already found a solution: if Ivanova asks all the Purple Drazi on the station to gather in one room to work out a peaceful resolution, they can blow out the airlock and kill all 2000 of them in one go. Then the station will be quiet again!

He asks if she'll go along with the plan, she says no, he says that's a shame because they already sent word to the Purple Drazi using her name! So the just tried to recruit someone he didn't need and who'll obviously try to expose them first chance she gets... he must be suffering from a concussion after all those tables he's been thrown onto.

They've decided that she’ll be their prisoner until the whole thing is over, which probably won’t end well for the people involved. It might not be against station law for Drazi to kill each other, but I’m sure there’s something in there about kidnapping the station’s second in command.


ACT FOUR


Elsewhere, Garibaldi is moping around being mopey, when he runs into Lou Welch’s security team coming down the corridor. Turns out that Commander Ivanova sent them a message so they've got stuff to do. Garibaldi mumbles to himself that he's happy to hear about her promotion and then walks away.

Then he realises that she sent them a message instead of speaking to them over her link and that's damn peculiar.

So he goes down to her last known location to sell the Drazi an Acme Handy-Dandy Micro-Helper. He goes through a whole door to door salesman routine with them, making it known that if there's anyone in the house who needs a little help, they should say the word. Ivanova gives a yell to let him know he's on the right track and the two of them take out her guards. Two down, 1998 Green Drazi left to go.

I wonder how many doors he had to try down here in Brown 2 before he found her. He might have actually managed to make a sale along the way.

Meanwhile Vir goes to visit Londo and discovers that Elric's sent a holo-demon to possess his data system. Which basically means he’s got a very flashy computer virus that likes to show elaborate CGI effects while it’s nibbling his personal files and buying shares in spoo ranches.

Londo’s determined not to apologise to Elric though and not even the Narn opera blaring out of his room’s speakers is enough to change his mind. Though when the power cuts out entirely he finally gives in. Hopefully the door mechanism and the air conditioning is still working or else they're going to suffocate in there!

Back in the A plot (or maybe it's the B plot, I'm not sure), Ivanova and Garibaldi have come up with a non-lethal solution to their Drazi problem! This ritual these guys have only lasts one Drazi cycle, so they’re going to lock both sides away in separate rooms for a week and wait it out. Problem solved!

The Drazi laugh at this, explaining that a cycle isn’t a Drazi week, it’s a Drazi year. Man, I had so much trouble figuring out how long a cycle was meant to be back in Grail, and now it turns out that even the characters haven’t got a clue.

So every five years their entire Drazi species is split into two groups that fight each other for a whole year, friends, family and co-workers beating each other senseless, sometimes even murdering each other without compunction... and these guys have kept their civilization together long enough to develop interstellar travel?

Ivanova and the Green Drazi leader get into a conversation about people fighting over bits of cloth, and she points out that when humans fight over a flag they’re fighting for what it represents (even if the specific cloth they're fighting for usually depends on where they were born). The Drazi's sash on the other hand means absolutely nothing, it’s entirely arbitrary, which she demonstrates by taking his sash off him.

The Drazi will at least admit one flaw in their current system: they came up with the ritual long before they made contact with alien races, and their attempts to update the rules have been caught in bureaucracy. So if a human (like Ivanova) were to grab a leader's sash (like she just did), they'd be the new leader (like she is).

So as the new leader of the Green Drazi on the station, Ivanova (who's getting all kinds of promotions this episode) decides to lead her Drazi away to get their sashes dyed purple. All of them except the ones going to the brig for assaulting an Earthforce officer. I guess they'll have to keep an eye out for any more Green Drazis coming on board during the next year and keep on top of this.

Londo’s off solving his problems as well, by apologising to the technomages for being an asshole. They seem to accept it and he feels like things have worked out pretty well.

But then he can’t see the holographic imps hanging off his back. I could barely see them either so I boosted the brightness and zoomed in a bit.

I have to take back what I said earlier about the CGI looking crap, because these gremlins are actually pretty impressive, with how they're hanging off his coat as he walks around. They're even lit up properly as he walks under the rings of light. In fact I think they may have just knocked those holographic knights from Survivors off the top of my 'most convincing visual effects in B5' list.

Though I've just noticed that they're repeating the same looping animations and now I don't like them so much any more.


ACT FIVE


Act five begins in Earhart's with Lou congratulating Garibaldi on finally being back in uniform! So the status quo has finally been restored (more or less) after Chrysalis kicked over the table, with Delenn, G'Kar and now Garibaldi back in their roles.

Garibaldi decided to come back to work after realising that there's two reasons why he's uniquely suited for the job: he knows the station and everyone on it intimately, and he doesn't trust anyone. That's how he was able to save Ivanova's ass today (well she would've been fine either way, but I'm sure those 2000 Drazi are happier breathing oxygen).

This also gives a bit of insight into why he was kicking himself so hard over being shot in the back. It happened because he didn't know his aide as well as he could have and because he trusted him, so he failed at the two things he feels make him qualified to be the security chief.

Meanwhile Londo's back in the customs area again, this time to see the technomages off. He wants to know if he's going to be paying for one small mistake for the rest of his life, as Elric's gift wrecked his quarters and he's not sure the smell will ever leave. What, did they do a digital dump on his carpet or something?

Elric replies that yeah, he's going to be paying for his mistakes for the rest of his life. When he looks at Londo he sees a vision of a great hand reaching out of the stars and billions of people calling his name... his victims. He says he could warn him of where his story arc is going, but he knows he won't listen, and if he kills him then someone else will take his place. So all he can do is leave him to it.

But hey at least he didn't prophesize that the station would blow up, so that makes a change.

The technomages board their ship and Sheridan gives them permission to leave as he plays with his magic orange blossom. They disappear through the jump gate, the end.

Devereaux, huh? Which one was he again?

Wait, he was the guy who conspired to kill President Santiago in Chrysalis and was killed by Garibaldi's treacherous aide! He appeared in a flashback last episode so I guess his credit ended up on the wrong episode by mistake. That's so weird.


CONCLUSION

Personally if I was going to write an episode about technowizards casting computer virus spells and aliens fighting over their colour of their sash, I probably wouldn't have called it The Geometry of Shadows. I mean the story isn't an all out comedy (there's a scene with Garibaldi contemplating suicide), but it's definitely not as dark or pretentious as the title implies. Plus it's full of 'oh it's this episode' moments, like Ivanova breaking her foot, Garibaldi doing a door to door salesman routine, Londo buying 200,000 shares in a spoo ranch and Vir staring down a demon. Oh plus green vs. purple obviously.

The episode focuses on four characters whose individual stories weave in and out of two main plots: the technomages and the Drazi ritual:

Ivanova spends the episode dealing with her new job while Garibaldi is trying to decide if he wants his old job back, and this brings them both into the Drazi story, which is one of the most memorable in the whole series. Pretty much everyone remembers green vs. purple even if they can't quite remember which episode it's in. There's some great makeup work here as well, with a whole roomful of Drazi showing up. It really makes Star Trek: The Next Generation's aliens look bad by comparison with their forehead makeup and their funny noses (or their nothing at all in the case of Star Trek: Insurrection).

The Drazi's ritual is all about starting a civil war over nothing so that the strongest side gets to choose who their new leaders will be. A whole year where no one gets anything done because they're all too busy throwing each other into tables. Babylon 5's all about peaceful resolutions though and Ivanova manages to prove her strength as a leader by pulling a Commander Sinclair and finding the loophole in their rules instead. Granted she found it by accident, but once she realised what she had she immediately seized the opportunity and restored order to the station! Not a bad result for her first week on the job, broken foot aside. Sucks for all the thousands of Drazi still getting killed outside of B5 space though.

But I suppose the A plot has to be the one about the technomages, otherwise the episode title would've been Conflicts of Green and Purple or something. It's certainly the plot with the most arc significance, with them fleeing the coming storm and telling Londo about his dark future, but the weird thing about it is they basically just turn up to say that they're leaving and we'll never see them again. JMS went to the trouble of setting up a whole faction of mysterious wizards just to immediately write them out (after they've taught Sherdian that technomagic is real).

I suppose they also try to teach Londo a lesson about not being a cunning, amoral, manipulative dick, but Elric then reveals that it was pointless because he's not listening. It's not clear whether Elric's actually able to see the future or if he's just wise, but he's pretty specifically predicting that Londo's choices will lead to the suffering of billions. Yet he can't steer him off that path because Londo's so sick of being a comedy character who yells at people and cleans up holographic poop that he's determined to take advantage of his new credibility back home and will continue to take any opportunity he can to raise his standing. He's already taken the first big step and fixed his scruffy haircut. But you never know, maybe they'll be a billion people he doesn't much like.

Overall this episode was alright I reckon, though it's given up some of the momentum built up by Chrysalis and Revelations. Londo's actions here very much tie into his series arc, plus Garibaldi comes back to work and Ivanova gets a promotion, but it still feels like a bit of a break from the main story. Definitely one worth watching though.



COMING SOON
Babylon 5 will return with A Distant Star. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm finishing off Doctor Who's The Face of Evil.

I always appreciate your comments, especially if they're short and to the point, or long winded and excessive, but especially if they're a reasonable length. So go wild! Or don't.

2 comments:

  1. I'm not quite up to that episode on my own rewatch, but I wanted to make a few points.

    One, Michael Ansara's voice completely and utterly sells me on the whole Technomage thing. (His "Mr. Freeze" in the 1990s "Batman" animated series is another piece of vocal magic.) Just ignore the flaws and listen to his voice.

    Two, Jeanne Cavelos wrote a trilogy of canonical Technomage books which explain a lot of your questions about the Technomages IN THIS EPISODE, but I recommend not reading the books until after you've finished B5 and Crusade, because they give a lot away. To pick one non-spoilerish bit, the pattern on Elric's tunic is actually a map of hyperspace routes.

    On a personal note, I *love* this part of Elric's speech:

    "[W]e know many things.... The true secrets. The important things. Fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever. Seven words to make them go without pain. How to say goodbye to a friend who is dying. How to be poor. How to be rich. How to rediscover dreams when the world has stolen them from you."

    As mysterious-sci-fi-babble goes, I think that's one of the best examples. I want to know those things, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I should really read the Technomage trilogy at some point. That and the Psi-Corps and Centauri trilogies too. Three novels each is really demanding a lot of my time though!

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