We come now to a magnificent episode: Babylon Squared. Up until now, the series has been moving along a straight path but Babylon Squared adds a wrinkle when the station detects some serious time distortions. This is a powerhouse episode and you have to be paying attention to really catch it all. But we can start by going back to the episode Grail, where Jinxy says that the previous stations were cursed. Go back still further right to the start of the show, and we learned that Babylon 4 vanished without a trace. Babylon Squared fills in the backstory. More importantly, it shows a future event: an older, scarred Jeffrey Sinclair traveling back to do … something. More importantly still, we see… or more specifically, we hear Delenn with him, so how far into the future is this? We’ll come to that. In the whole season, there has been no indication of any race with time travel abilities and yet, something in the future must happen to send an older Sinclair back to B4. This becomes something of a mobius strip: some time in the future, Sinclair goes to B4, while B4 is unstuck in time and interacts with his “present” self. Like I said, powerhouse!
Much is revealed in this story. Yet again, we hear that prophesy says that humans have a role to play in the future, according to a revered holy man, Valen. (There’s a lot of “In Valen’s name” and “Valen go with you” in this story, so it’s clear that he’s a central figure in Minbari belief. As we see toward the end of season 2, even dinner rituals reserve a place at the table for the return of Valen, so we can assume he’s a Christ-like figure) Delenn is on Babylon 5 to see if there’s validity to the prophesy. She’s part of the religious caste, so seeking meaning in religious mysteries would not be considered a sacrilegious act. Delenn is also seen doing something in her quarters, preparing for something. This will become clear in the final episode, Chrysalis, just two stories away now.
The series goes a bit “meta” with the superb line that “we are surrounded by signs and portents”, as that was the title of episode 13. In some ways, this episode is a stand-alone, but there are things happening that are as critical as Signs and Portents. It’s what makes this show so good; things actually connect. So to validate that, we have a flashback of Michael speaking to his former love interest Lise Hampton. This event was 2 years ago for him. What does it mean in the flashforward when Sinclair and Michael are separated? Does that mean the battle we see is also only 2 years away? Michael tells Jeff during the battle that this is what he “was born for” and he appears to go out, guns blazing, shooting at an unseen enemy. Is the future set in stone? Are these just signs and portents? Can they be avoided? This story sets a tone: there is a potential future that Jeff and Michael have seen and neither have any idea what it might mean.
You can’t have a powerhouse episode without some levity. Michael and Jeff have a very deep and meaningful discussion on their way to Sector 14 to investigate the tachyon particles: when putting on pants, do you zip and then button or button and then zip! It’s a brilliantly comical moment; Jeff’s a no-nonsense guy and boggles that these are things that trouble Gariballdi. Their friendship is a highlight of the show. A scene like this is not a detractor from the story as it builds characters, but it also gives the audience pause for a laugh, which becomes needed as the episode progresses. Most of the episode is a tense, edge-of-the-seat joy ride. There are too many questions in the end and the audience has to wonder: does it mean anything or is it a buildup to something else. And who was this Zathras character anyway? What did he mean by “not the one, not the one”? What happens in Sinclair’s future? And why is Delenn kept off-screen in that final scene? (It’s very clearly her, but we only see her arm… why?) And does any of it matter, or can it all be changed? Time will tell. ML
The view from across the pond:
“It must be a great relief, knowing you will never again return to Babylon 5.”
…if only. We’re still on Season One. Seriously, though, this is a very significant episode, containing one of the most important ethical debates the universe has to offer: zip first, or button? The correct answer, as Sinclair and Garibaldi both identify, is button, of course. I mean, we’re not animals. A quick bit of googling reveals this was some padding on the part of the writer, trying to stretch the episode out to the running time, and he has been rewarded by being asked that question himself at conventions over and over again.
It’s not the only bit of humorous padding in the episode. I like how grounded in reality this whole thing is (unusual for sci-fi), to the extent that it’s ok to show the Commander and Security Chief of the most important space station in the universe playing a trick on somebody and stealing her breakfast. That’s real: a couple of buddies having a laugh. Sci-fi so often forgets to do that kind of thing, but it makes the characters come alive.
Way back at the start of this whole thing I noticed a reference to Babylon 4. Being the intuitive chap that I am, I expressed a hope that it was more than a throwaway line, because it sounded interesting, and here we are, finally picking up on the story of the missing station. I can’t lie – it was a bit of a disappointment when they found it. I was hoping for a creepy deserted hulk of a station with icky aliens in the ventilation shafts, or something like that, and instead it was just some time travelling shenanigans. And I should really start filming some of my observations while I watch these, just to avoid reactions like “yeah, right”, when I say things like this: the person inside the spacesuit was blindingly obvious.
The flash forward to Sinclair and Garibaldi in the future was more promising, although Garibaldi’s vision of the past seemed like nothing more than a bit more padding. Anyway, here’s a quick roundup of some of the things that made me smile:
- Zathras. His Gollum-speak was fun, and his accent did a tour of the world. His cheek clicking was absolutely hilarious, although I suspect it wasn’t meant to be.
- The security fencing. It was made of that thin plastic webbing stuff they use in the building industry. I’m not sure what exactly they normally use it for, but I’m pretty sure it’s not for security fences.
- The Grey Council, who are so important that they can’t afford chairs.
- The Grey Council, again, who are so important they can’t afford to light a room.
- The Grey Council, who vote by switching off their spotlights. This literally made me giggle at the thought of them all stumbling around afterwards in the dark to try to find the door.
So yeah, I’m loving this series, but not necessarily for the reasons the people who made it intended. 20 episodes in, and we most definitely reached “so bad that it’s good” territory. Sorry, Mike. RP