Babylon 5: And Now For a Word

b5My wife is a news junkie.  It was during the horrors of the financial banking crisis that I lost the faith my wife still seems to hold in the news.  Matt Lauer, then-respected, was among the fear mongers, effectively scaring the nation about the riots in the streets that were inevitable.  We’d be living in a Walking Dead world, if the media was to be believed!  That was when it all went south.  I wanted to write to Lauer, suggesting he try to instill some positivity; give people a sense of hope again.  Everything is cyclical; why assume it’s the end of the world?  But the news never recovered.  Now we have “news shows”, which, forgive the phrase, are ratings-whores, working more on getting people to watch their network than actually share news.  It’s nauseating.  Sit two people against one another and watch them argue over whose opinion is right.  How is that, in any way, news?  And why, with all the fear mongering, have the news channels turned a blind eye to the fact that everything the banks did to lead us to that financial crisis is all happening again?  Because it wouldn’t make money.  So I don’t have much faith in our news media.  I see things a bit like Joe Straczynski does in this episode.

And Now For A Word is shocking, and unsurprisingly written by JMS.  A news crew comes to Babylon 5 to report on how things are on the station.  They take a tour, record some great footage, and then edit it and show it to the populace at large.  There is another similar episode to this one that will give us a lot more to work with.  Bear in mind, this is similar to the interview done during season one’s Infection but we did not get to see the end result of that.  This one depicted the interviewer as a bit of an inquisitor.  She’s cold, unemotional, and doesn’t care how her questions affect those she questions.  There is a scene with Delenn where she is being interviewed rather cruelly for looking “human” and how that might affect the families of those who lost people during the Earth Minbari war.  Delenn struggles with this.  It’s a difficult scene to watch and worse for the fact that the camera lingers on her even as she breaks down.  How much of that is done today?  How does it help ratings to show someone breaking down?  (Of interest, watching on Amazon Prime, there is a “trivia” section which states that this is actress Mira Furlan’s favorite episode because one of the main reasons she left her home in Yugoslavia was because of constant harassment in the press over the fact that she refused to take sides during the war.)

The events that are going on during these interviews are secondary, though it builds on the war going on between Narn and Centauri.  However, the evidence of the world building is amazing.  Let’s take a look at some of what JMS does here.  During the interviews, Edwardo Delvientos is questioned.  He works in the docks.  He was a “bit character” in the season one episode By Any Means Necessary.  Guess he was a real guy after all.  Oh, and IPX sponsored the whole interview.  Remember those guys from season 1, episode 4: Infection?  They were behind the organic tech smuggling that David McCullum was up to!  So is there any reason to suspect that they know about what the Centauri are up to, using B5 as a transfer point for weapons?  Perhaps they do know!  Let’s look at evidence.  First, we get the subliminal “The Psi Corp is your friend.  Trust the Corp” which flashed up on the screen during the news show.  Since season 1, there have been speculation that Psi Corp is behind some of the dark undercurrents going on back home, especially with the assassination of President Santiago.  (As a point of interest, according to that trivia page, that image appears 1/6th of a second, which is double the allowed length according to the FCC!)   Let’s also consider the “Ministry of Public Morale” and “The Office of Public Information”; both sound like something out of 1984 or The Prisoner, both of which have a connection with Psi Corp.  (In fact, the “Be seeing you” hand gesture is used by Bester every time he’s saying goodbye!)  And it is extremely interesting that the interviewer, Torqueman, says “…and yet growth only comes through pain and struggle.”  I wonder why she said that.  Surely growth also comes through caring for our young and helping them learn.  No?  (And just looking up her name to see how to spell it, I realized this had to be an in-joke of Straczynski’s surrounding Grand Inquisitor Torquemeda from the Spanish Inquisition!  Bravo, sir! Bravo!)

Culturally, we learn about the three languages of the Minbari; a race obsessed with things in 3, which we first encountered during episode 5 of season one, Parliament of Dreams.  Gone is Senator Hidoshi who has appeared often since the series started, but that makes sense as the powers-that-be don’t want someone sympathetic to Babylon 5; hence Senator Quantrell’s involvement.  The question is, will this help boost B5’s place in public opinion or hinder it?  (By this point in the series, 41% of Earth citizens think B5 is a waste of time and money!)  I’d focus on the ending of this episode to really determine how it will be received.  The responses to “Is Babylon 5 worth it” are very positive with some great lessons about life neatly summed up.  “We learn.  It’s what humans do.”  “We must simply work harder to make sure we communicate with one another.”  “Humans share one unique quality: they build communities… out of diverse and sometimes hostile populations.”  Most positive of all is Sheridan: “This place was built on the belief that we could work out our problems and build a better future.  …   see the line of ancestors behind us saying: ‘make my life have meaning.’  And to our inheritors before us saying  ‘create the world we will live in.’  We are … building the future.  … Only by making people understand that can we hope to create a better world for ourselves and our posterity.”  It’s a positive message full of hope and things we could all learn from.  Which can only mean one thing… trouble is on the horizon!  ML

The view from across the pond:

When I realised what this episode was doing, two thoughts popped into my head. Number One: cheesy 3D fonts are obviously a big thing in the future. Number Two: it’s a novelty, but there needs to be a reason for it.

It wasn’t long before I got my reason. The faux documentary format, “26 Hours on Babylon 5”, includes interviews with many of the main characters on the station, and those interviews help us to learn a bit more about them. Best of all is Franklin’s anecdote about losing a friend who hid in an airlock:

“You could see that he was trying to breathe but there was nothing.”

It’s a grim story, but it humanises the previously unlikeable Franklin a little bit more. Delenn is put on the spot, and easily gets emotional at Cynthia’s questioning, and we get a bit of background to G’Kar’s hatred of the Centauri. The most fun is the interview with Ivanova, whose name Cynthia mispronounces and then describes her as “perky”.

“I’m sure there’s more to your story than that.”
“Yes.”

With G’Kar now the figurehead on the station for a warring faction, Ivanova is fast becoming my new favourite character. An opportunity was missed with Kosh declining to be interviewed. It would have been fun to see how an interview would have gone with the irritating Mr Riddle. One word answers, I suspect, and not useful ones at that.

The format also allowed for an advertisement from Psi Corps which illustrates the level of propaganda they are stooping to, complete with a subliminal message (which wasn’t actually subliminal because the whole point of it was that we were supposed to notice it).

“The Psi Corps is your friend. Trust the Corps.”

It also meant that we got the war portrayed in a very frank, documentary style, and that made it all feel a lot more dangerous. For example, the battle between the Narn and the Centauri that endangers the station plays out as simple documentary footage, devoid of music, and that makes it seem much more real and powerful.

The only problem for me with this episode is that it required a huge suspension of disbelief. I forget which episode it was, but a while ago I remarked on the absurdity of a journalist just walking into the command area to ask a question. Where’s the security, on this most vital part of the station? This episode has the same problem, turned up to eleven. A documentary crew filming in the control area while Sheridan is trying to command in a crisis that threatens the lives of everyone on the station beggars belief. Seriously, Cynthia tries to start asking a question when he is about to communicate with the arriving Narn. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Name me one war, anywhere, ever, where a documentary crew has been permitted to film in the place where command decisions are being made by the person in overall charge, on the front line. It doesn’t happen and it never will, because it’s ridiculous and Cynthia in these scenes is actually getting in the way and endangering everyone.

So this is a good episode and it’s fun, but if it had all just been dialled back a little then it might have actually made sense and had even more impact. As it stands, it’s simply another example of what a very silly slice of sci-fi this whole series is turning out to be. RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Babylon 5, Television and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Babylon 5: And Now For a Word

  1. DrAcrossthePond says:

    Scathing final words. Torqueman is a problem yes, but what film crew? As I recall, and I do admit this didn’t flag to me as much, but I thought there are those flying discs that record everything. No film crew. ML

    Liked by 1 person

    • scifimike70 says:

      This Babylon 5 portrait on the downsides of the media, certainly whether or not we should have faith in our media today, is in league with some of the best SF episodes to mirror the key issues of the times, alongside Star Trek: A Private Little War, Dr. Who: Vengeance On Varos and The X-Files: Kitten. The concept of the media serving only the purpose to draw in ratings by manipulating viewer-addictions is of course well-known. That’s why I now put my attention into astronomy media, like Earthfiles every Wednesday evening (YouTube). I think this B5 episode is all the more worth reviewing now for the sake of this timely subject matter. So thank you both, RP and ML.

      Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        I should also point out that the main benefit and appeal of astronomy media like Earthfiles is that it never actually spoon-feeds us anything, but instead motivates our own intuitions, discernment and answers. Even if its own message is purely authentic. That’s the same reason why the best SF worth reviewing on the Junkyard from Dr. Who to Babylon 5 is in all agreement the kind that makes us think, NOT the kind that presumes to think for us. I look forward to whatever new SF the Junkyard reviews next in this regard.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      I can’t answer that without re-watching and I really don’t fancy doing that! So I must defer to your knowledge on that one! Either way, I don’t think it affects the point I am making about that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        I don’t think it does either. But of course where the media in general is concerned, there’s so many points that address how bold many TV shows and films have now become in the subject matter of how both the media and our individual responses to the media are great responsibilities. That’s all that I was getting at. But the fact that the media can abuse the innocent and make the guilty seem more popular is agreeably hard-hitting. This gave me deep respect for Mira’s breaking-down performance as Delenn within a cruel interviewer’s lingering camera.

        Liked by 1 person

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