Babylon 5: The Geometry of Shadows

b5Last week I made the comment about observing the “geometry of shadows”.   Obviously that was a reference to this week’s episode review, The Geometry of Shadows.  What a great title!  When I was growing up, I was taught to measure the height of a tree using its shadow, but really that’s still based on the very visible tree.  Can one really measure the geometry of actual shadows?  Well, when they are living creatures, perhaps they can!  But the title is still foreshadowing and ominous as we don’t come away with that much additional information.

After what felt like a 3-part arc, we’re back in regular B5 story-telling mode: there’s the main plot and a subplot.  I’ve said it before, after a big run, you get some light comedy to unwind with, before going at it again, full speed.  So let’s talk subplot: the Drazi are a silly race.  If you wear a colored scarf, you become the leader.  Susan, utterly dumbfounded by this, ignores the customs of other races and takes both scarves to show how stupid the idea is.  This leads to a broken foot and some great comedy!  (It’s hilarious that the one guy who keeps playing a Drazi is so recognizable to me, I can’t imagine the Drazi without him!)   If this were Star Trek, the Federation would have had Susan sacked, but in the B5 universe, this is the episode she actually gets promoted!  Kudos on being different.  (In fairness, it’s her promotion that gets her the Drazi assignment, but let’s not make any bones about it!)

The main thrust of the episode comes from Londo and the political tensions on Centauri Prime.  Lord Refa had been looking for a sign (a probable reference to Signs and Portents) and now, Londo is looking for one, in the form of an endorsement from a technomage.  He’ll use trickery to get it, and that’s not a good idea when dealing with technomages.  First off I’m going to digress.   Elric is played by Michael Ansara, who was my favorite Klingon in classic Star Trek in the episode Day of the Dove.  It took me far longer than it should have to recognize him but I got there in the end. But the real reason for my digression is the name Elric.  It upsets me that, with all the shows and movies coming out based on earlier shows and movies, no one has ever attempted Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone.  That Elric was an albino sorcerer who becomes the proud owner of a soul drinking sword, Stormbringer.  Sadly, none of that is relevant here, but I want to see someone make a series about that guy.   I don’t know if JMS’s intent to bring up this sorcerer, but this Elric is a powerful technomage in the tradition of Gandalf and other fantasy novels of our youth.  The difference here is that they use technology to simulate magic; it is not actually magic but it’s hard to distinguish from the real deal.   Now, I draw your attention to this because Elric quotes Gandalf (“do not try the patience of wizards”) but there are certain similarities that this show has to The Lord of the Rings. (This becomes more evident later in the series but an example is Z’Ha’Dum being similar to Khazad Dum.)  However, consider this:  Elric says the technomages have seen signs and are leaving our galaxy.  We’ve also been given the hint right from the beginning of the series that this is the “third age of Mankind”.  Are they referencing Lord of the Rings?  I don’t mean to suggest this is the same universe, but could they see patterns where we miss them?   Is there something more going on that we just don’t understand that these technomages have learned from older stories?  I don’t have an answer, but I find the speculation quite enjoyable.

Ultimately, Elric makes this episode for me.  The orange blossom is just a nice touch, but his words are marvelous. His prophetic comment about Londo,. “I see a great hand, reaching out of the stars” and his “Dreamers, shapers, singers, makers”… they are poetic and wonderful, especially the latter.  Though they may not pass this way again, they make for an interesting group.

So that’s the episode.  A mix of comedy and foreshadowing.  Oh, wait, no… there is one more thing: Garibaldi.  Yeah, this seems a heavy thing to add to the episode.  He’s lying on the floor playing with his gun.  For a recovering alcoholic who lost one of his closest friends (Sinclair, having been reassigned) and having just been betrayed by his second in command, I can’t help but feel like Garibaldi is in a dark place.  Nothing is said about it, it’s just left to the audience to read into it.  I wonder if he will be alright?   ML

The view from across the pond:

“Dreamers, shapers, singers, makers.”

…who do you think you are?  Now I can’t get that Spice Girls song out of my head.  That’s when you know the television series you are watching has plumbed new depths of cheesiness, when a rhyming mystical quote brings to mind the lyrics of a song from the decade music forgot.  But cheesiness is becoming a big part of B5’s charm.  I’m pretty sure that’s unintentional, but we are firmly entrenched in so-bad-that-it’s-good territory now.  I’m sorry if that’s not a ringing endorsement.

We’re back in A-plot and B-plot of the week territory, and the episode gets them spectacularly back to front.  The big story this week is the Technomages, but their plot strand is wrapped up by the half-hour mark, with just a coda at the end, leaving the Ivanova stuff to limp to a conclusion.

The Technomages “use science to achieve the effect of magic”, like a walking sonic screwdriver.  Or Penn and Teller (see how I deliberately went for an across-the-pond cultural reference there?  If I had said Paul Daniels would anyone know what I was talking about?).  When you really stop and think about what they are doing, it just amounts to some holographic technology and a bit of ransomware where the price is an apology, which wouldn’t sell many tickets in Vegas (there I go again.  “Live at the Apollo”, anyone?).  But it works because it’s sold so well with all the low lighting and atmospherics, and extraordinarily well acted as well, which all contrives to switch off the part of the brain that’s telling us this is nothing more than Star Trek‘s holodeck, wrapped up in a cloak.  We also get a nifty bit of CGI, with Vir facing off against a conjured up holographic monster.  Those Gremlins are growing big nowadays.

I can see the point of all this, though.  The Technomages are sold to us as an incredibly powerful group, which everyone is afraid of, and yet this happens:

“There is a storm coming, a black and terrible storm. We would not have our knowledge lost or used for ill purpose.”

It’s carefully worded so as not to lessen their power, but this is basically telling us that the most scary bunch of people around are running away, because something really scary is on its way.  The build up to whatever is going to happen is being handled brilliantly at this point, but when it turns up it has a lot of hype to live up to.

As for the A plot that should have been a B plot, I enjoyed B5 going down the comedy route:

“You can start by helping me to understand the precise nature of the conflict between the two sides that you’ve set up.”

The look of disgust in his face when he said “purple” was priceless.  It’s a silly little story, and it’s just there so Ivanova can prove that she deserves her promotion and Garibaldi can resolve his crisis of confidence and prove his worth as well.  The latter I saw coming a mile off but it still works well.  As for the former, the script throws Ivanova under the bus this episode.  She comes across as a right idiot (and disrespectful) to start messing with the sashes in her first diplomatic meeting, and it’s no surprise she ends up with a broken leg.  She doesn’t learn her lesson, either, and in an astonishingly bad moment of script writing she foolishly repeats the same mistake, only for it to work this time and resolve the plot, as if that sash couldn’t simply be snatched right back from her.  A bit more internal logic would have been nice.

Meanwhile, Londo is on a path to some bad stuff:

“You are touched by darkness Ambassador.”

A future is predicted for him that will involve billions of victims, which you would think would give him pause for thought.  He has already been indirectly responsible for many, many deaths.  One would think he would be taking stock of the path he is on at this point.  Somehow, I think turning Londo into a monster is going to be a hard sell.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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