Babylon 5: Signs and Portents

b5We’ve come at last to the episode for which the entire season takes its name: Signs and Portents.  JMS likes to give us some whoppers and this one really nails it!  First of all, for those history fans, I wanted to point out that the title comes from a WWII era drama.  The line read as follows: “Signs and portents!  It was no furtive tapping on the window sill at night, But clamorous pounding in the public square.”  This is because Straczynski is a bit of a history buff (some of you probably noticed that with The War Prayer).  He throws a lot of information into his stories if one is just inclined to research a little.  (Wait until season 2’s opener!)   Generally I go in for a good story and worry less about the background upon which it’s based, but Babylon 5 is so rich a universe, one has to look deeper.  Anyway, what Signs and Portents effectively does is sets up the next 4 years of the show.  Lady Ladira’s visions and Lord Kiro’s “death by shadows” may seem totally fabricated to all the major players, but as the audience we know there’s more to it.  That shadows mean something.  Then there’s the opening credits which always state “this is the story of the last of the Babylon stations”.  Why is it the last?

Then there’s Mr. Morden.  It’s one of the first times I noticed something about Babylon 5 that reminded me of Lord of the Rings.  The name Morden is very close to Mordor.  Does that influence our opinion of him in some way?  More on that in a moment.  Of Morden, dare I ask, what does he want?  Who is he?  Astute viewers will notice that the actor, Ed Wasser, was in the pilot working in C&C.  Is it the same person?  When he arrives on the station, the security guard says he has an old ident card, to which Morden mentions that he’d been out of circulation for a while.  Since he never interacts with the humans, is it because he has history with them?  Would they recognize him?  (For the record, I looked this up to see what the intent was, and JMS does not say!) There’s also an interesting feature about the encounter between Morden and Kosh.  Kosh reports damage to his encounter suit shortly after they speak.  This is attributed to other reasons but it seems unlikely that it was anything other than Morden’s meeting.  What happened?  How could Morden do damage to Kosh?

This brings me to the most interesting part of the episode that I hinted at above.  Kosh is cold (“They are a dying people.  We should let them pass!”) and elusive (Who, he Narn or the Centauri?  … “Yes”).  He has terrified Talia (Deathwalker) for reasons we don’t understand and even destroyed any chance of immortality in the same episode.  Morden, by contrast, has been polite, smiling, leaves Delenn when asked, and helps save Londo’s honor by returning The Eye to him and asks for nothing in return.  So who is the good guy and who is the bad?  Why does it feel like the bad guy is Morden??  Are we merely being influenced by Delenn, who we have come to believe is a good person?  Which ties in with the Minbari rather well.  I’ll explain.

I alluded to it before, but if you recall, in And The Sky Full of Stars, Sinclair’s question, “What do you want” gets echoed around the chamber.  Morden very pointedly asks all of the ambassadors that rather ambiguous question as if looking for a “right answer”.  He seems to find what he’s looking for in Londo.  Delenn however, has an outward reaction like a rash, revealing the triangle symbol on her forehead which prompts her to ask Morden to leave and Kosh tells Morden “they are not for you”, whoever they are.  And that’s not the only carry-over from that And The Sky Full of Stars.  We learn why Sinclair bypassed all those candidates who were better suited for command because the Minbari had a hand in the decision.  Which means there’s some credibility to the idea that Sinclair may be a tool of the Minbari, as the Knights suspected So are we being influenced by Delenn, as it’s possible Sinclair is, because we want to believe Delenn is an “old friend”?   Signs and portents, indeed!

A few final observations: the elevator scene between G’Kar and Londo is wonderfully humorous and plays out well, but there’s symbolism in it too.  There is a human caught between them just as humanity is stuck between the Narn/Centauri conflict.  It’s a subtle piece of foreshadowing but it’s there nonetheless.  Less obvious is what Delenn is doing with her plastic build-a-something she seems content to work with.  This becomes clear later. Suffice to say, it’s not there by accident.  And lastly, have we ever seen anyone use a bathroom in 50+ years of Star Trek?  Not that I recall.  Yet, in this story, Sinclair and Michael are conversing while in one, washing their hands and walking out.  I may have said it before but I’ll reiterate it now: a very believable universe.  Who knows!  Maybe eventually they’ll talk about real things like getting dressed in the morning!  Stranger things have happened!  ML

The view from across the pond:

I already knew from Mike that this was going to be a big episode, although that’s all I knew.  However, it was the small things about this episode that impressed me the most.  Once again, Babylon 5 seems real by including those down-to-earth moments, which reflect daily life.  And again, I have to make a comparison with Star Trek.  It might seem like I’m bashing Trek a lot, but to be clear so far I consider this to be the inferior series (at least in comparison to TNG or DS9) but there are certain aspect of Trek that have always seemed a little too perfect, robbing the show of believability and something we can relate to.  B5 doesn’t make that mistake.

A perfect example of this is the moment London Londo and G’Kar are waiting for the lift.  In Trek the lifts arrive instantly.  They have magic lifts.  It doesn’t matter if somebody else is using them, or if they are 10 decks away, they are always right there when they are needed.  Not so, with B5.  You press a button and wait.  That leads to this amusing exchange between the two ambassadors:

I have already pushed it.
I pushed it again.

Apart from being very funny, it communicates to the viewer the nature of their relationship more clearly than a hundred political debates.  They are like childhood rivals, who will never concede ground to the other, even if that ground is something as simple as the rights and wrongs of calling a lift.  While we’re on the subject of B5 reflecting real life, this episode also includes mention of Ivanova’s struggles with getting up in the morning, because it is dark outside (as always).  Again, these people seem real, leading real lives.  They aren’t perfect, super beings.

As for the big story, there are lots of hints of things to come.  The Shadows are presumably going to be the new Big Bad, and the point is made by that well-worn technique of having them wipe out the old Big Bad with ease.  It’s always a good way to make the point that these people are really powerful.  The raiders have been a thorn in the side of B5 for a long time, and the Shadow ship just turns up and wipes out their mothership in an instant, as if it’s the easiest thing in the universe to do.  B5 just levelled up.

Then we have Morden, who is the human face of the new Big Bad, and has taken the baton from Kosh of irritating enigmatic person, with his question “what do you want”.  Only Kosh seems to know who he is, or what he represents, and he’s not going to tell us.  There is a call back to And the Sky Full of Stars, but it is little more than a reminder rather than advancing that storyline.  The only point of significance is perhaps the revelation that Sinclair was the person the Minbari wanted to run the station, far from being the first choice for the job, but that’s a fairly obvious development, and other than that we just get Delenn with the triangle on her head, and we already know she’s involved with that mysterious stuff.

Interestingly, B5 validates psychic abilities with the character of Lady Ladira, specifically the ability to see into the future.  Whilst I love the bravery of a sci-fi series that embraces something more than boring science, and that’s relatively rare, the acceptance of a prophetess as something real opens up a can of worms, tying in the series to a fatalistic universe.  Taking away free will like that turns everyone into pieces on a chess board, acting out their pre-ordained moves.  It runs the risk of leaving us feeling like whatever anyone does won’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and now we are simply marking out time until that big moment where the station gets blown up (I was interested to see a ship departing at that moment).

At the last minute there is some attempt to hedge the bets, with Ladira claiming it is “a possible future” and that they “may yet avoid it”, but everything we have seen and heard up to that point leads us to believe that she is a prophetess and everything she says comes true, including the death of her nephew.  When he says “she has been wrong before”, he gives his own death as an example, which then of course comes true.  So I’ll call it: that explosion is going to happen, and with this episode B5 has morphed into a different kind of series altogether.  We’re waiting for a big moment to happen that we have already seen, and the fun is going to be seeing how we get there, and waiting for the pay off.  There is no free will in B5 any more.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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1 Response to Babylon 5: Signs and Portents

  1. scifimike70 says:

    I admire your points on how an SF show, even if it’s the classic Star Trek, can seem in some sense too perfect for its own good. I’m on record for enjoying Dr. Who for being so openly imperfect. For Babylon 5, given how it accentuated the futuristic conflicts and imperfections of cosmic life that are not-as-lavish for Deep Space 9, it indeed benefited the naturalism for the B5 universe to the points where they could allow some otherwise familiar humour, certainly via Ivanova’s crankiness, and of course still make it freshly enjoyable for the audience. As for lavatory issues of futuristic life in the universe (both real and SF), I don’t regularly ponder on that myself. But it’s still a good point and I certainly admit that it would naturally explain some obvious humour-dialogue in Trek: Generations and First Contact.

    Thank you both for your reviews. 🌎🌏🌍🌌🖖🏻

    Liked by 1 person

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