When I recommended Babylon 5 to one of my oldest friends, he watched the pilot and concluded that he couldn’t relate to the characters and needed to know more about them and their cultures. I told him to give it time; the writer had a plan for that. By episode 5, Parliament of Dreams, we begin to see that plan come to fruition. The main thrust of the episode is that Earth Government has scheduled a period where each of the major races can celebrate their dominant religious beliefs as part of a cultural exchange. Great idea! We get a chance to see a bit of Minbari, Centauri, and Earth customs. Notably absent is the Narn religion, but that might be because the actual holy day is approaching a few episodes later (see episode 12, By Any Means Necessary). Instead, to keep G’Kar valid for the episode, there is a subplot about an assassination attempt. We’ll come to that in a moment.
Of the cultures we do see, there are some very interesting things to note. The Centauri are lavish and loud and enjoy a “celebration of life”. Vir explains the shocking origin of this, but it’s a loud, raucous affair. They have household gods and Londo kisses one prominently on its backside. (Pay attention to that statue! There’s more to it than just “artistic rendering”!) Centauri are like ancient Romans enjoying a proper bacchanalia. Delenn displays Minbari beliefs. One of my favorite things about good science fiction is that the stories can be told visually; it’s not always in the words (as I tell many of my friends who think they can fold laundry while watching tv…). There are subtle things to notice, like the fact that so many things in the Mibari celebration are three-sided. (You’re not going to notice that if you’re folding the laundry! That said, I confess that I only noticed it this time around!) The point is, the musical instruments and the table are examples of visual clues about a culture that needs no verbal explanation. Minbari belief is spiritual; like monks; there is no over the top festivity to their culture. And then we come to humanity. How do we define our “dominant” belief? Exactly as Sinclair decides, by recognizing all of the belief systems of our diverse little planet. (Of note, I recall reading somewhere that Michael O’Hare (Sinclair) memorized all of the people’s names after only two read-throughs, many of whom used their real names and religions. I may not be able to remember that many names, but a stat like that I’m not likely to forget!)
Meanwhile, G’Kar is worried about an assassination and his former aide has died mysteriously, replaced by Na’Toth. Na’Toth is a wonderfully no-nonsense sort of Narn and makes a great counterpoint to G’Kar in ways Ko’Dath never could. This subplot offers a degree of humor as G’Kar goes through a very harrowing time. There are two things to notice with the G’Kar subplot. The first is that, like Delenn, G’Kar wants his status on the Narn council kept secret. Delenn tells her new aide, Lennier, her own status should be kept secret just as G’Kar does with Na’Toth. Why are so many of the delegates hiding their status? Second, and more about the type of show we’re watching, is that G’Kar is not just in full makeup most days; they even have a chest piece for Andreas to wear. We see G’Kar as more than just a dude in a mask, but a complete alien life form. This just goes to show that the Star Trek/Doctor Who excuse of not being able to put an actor into such a costume was utter nonsense. This is proof that the Doctor could have an alien companion; this was in the 90s! (Say what you want, but we’ve come a long way since then and we still don’t have alien companions that don’t look exactly like us!)
Finally, I’ll remind readers that we have invested in a “real” world; things that happened in the past still matter. Remember Caroline from The Gathering? As Sinclair is spending time with his old flame, Catherine Sakai, he explains that he and Caroline grew apart, even going so far as to explain what happened between them. As I’ve said before, this is a living universe being created by JMS. It’s inspired and unique. The relationships are real, like when Catherine arrives at Jeff’s quarters and hears him listening to Tennyson. She asks: “And which are you? ‘An idle king doling unequal laws unto a savage race that hoard and sleep and feed and know not you?’ Or ‘This gray spirit yearning in desire to follow knowledge like a sinking star.’” Think about that, as he is clearly no idle king of the station and he does have a “hole in his mind” that he wants to figure out. Yes, plot threads abound…
When I first watched Babylon 5, it was being broadcast on Wednesday nights. This made it hard to get home to catch the show, so after week 6, I bailed only to come back years later. But Catherine said goodbye to Jeff with the line “see you next Wednesday”. I have no doubt that was intentional as, like me, Catherine would be back the following week… as we will see in our next article. ML
The view from across the pond:
“I am dying”
“In fact, by the time you get this recording, I will be already dead.”
I suspect my favourite episodes of B5 are going to be the ones that focus on G’Kar, the most entertaining character by a mile. And that gets a million times better here, with the arrival of one of the mysterious missing cast members who have been in the opening credits from the start:
Diplomatic attaché Na’Toth reporting for duty.
Na’Toth and G’Kar scheming together makes for a fabulous double act. They made this episode the best so far, by a considerable margin. The other missing regular cast member turns up as well this episode, and look! It’s little Billy Mumy from Lost in Space, not so little any more. He didn’t have much to do, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to be great, because, well… it is Will Robinson.
There were three stories going on here: the attempt on G’Kar’s life, the religious festival, and Sinclair’s girlfriend. Something I have noticed so far with B5 is that it suffers with disconnected B plots. Sinclair, conveniently divorced because a married commander allows for less interesting stories, hooks up with an old flame. Yawn. Sorry, but he’s far from being an interesting enough character to make this anything other than an irritating distraction from the main plot. I hope and assume (due to the popularity of B5) that JMS learns at some point how to integrate B and A plots in an episode. These are self-contained episodes and they need to be fully integrated, or what you end up with is a one-episode soap opera, which is unsatisfying as a viewing experience. I could really have done without his icky bedroom scene as well.
The religious festival was more fun, especially
London Londo having a bit too much to drink:
“He has become one with his inner self.”
“He’s passed out.”
Ivanova seems to have suddenly transformed from ice queen to party girl, but never mind. Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, I suppose.
That was all a side dish though. The main meal for this episode was G’Kar and his assassination attempt, and the whole thing walked the line beautifully between G’Kar being afraid and also rising to the challenge. After the initial shock of receiving the black flower, for example, G’Kar then starts almost treating it all like a game, as if he’s relishing the chance to get the better of his enemies. Functionally, this was another enemy-within story, with the episode revolving around the revelation of the identity of the assassin. But JMS ain’t no Agatha Christie. The courier is clearly about to leave the station when Na’Toth intercepts him. If he planned that, it’s some amazing timing. So it didn’t quite all stack up, and I get the impression that JMS was trying to guide the viewer into a position of doubting Na’Toth, which… didn’t happen. Not for one second. But I can forgive those kinds of issues when an episode is just so entertaining.
“Do you know what the last one said before he died? Aaaaarrrghhhh!”