Babylon 5: sic transit Vir

b5It’s July 3rd, 2260, and the series decides to take a trip into comedy.  Alright, it doesn’t stay there, and that’s smart because this episode marks the start of the second half of the series and we’re in the middle of a war.  We need to keep the momentum.  That said, it is strangely timed with our own global Corona virus pandemic; this takes place while the Station is experiencing cutbacks too.  Londo can’t get an exterminator out to his house and John can’t get coffee – what the devil was he drinking anyway!?!?  It’s amazing how life imitates art, but it’s even more amazing when that art was written 30 years ago and we just happen to be reviewing it now!

The episode remains a fairly light one throughout but the comedy is fun.  Susan opens the episode going to work naked.  This is revealed to be a dream but it does open the episode with some laughter.  Then Vir is on Centauri Prime speaking with his standard overly-nervous anxiety before finding himself in a room full of Narn.  This leads to two things: a would-be wife for Vir and another underground railroad on Babylon 5.  (The first was the telepath underground which has gone so underground, we don’t hear about it anymore.)  As a mild B plot, Delenn and Sheridan are developing feelings for one another and it’s getting stronger.  Sheridan invites her over for a bite to eat.

There’s not a lot to this episode but it is a solid character piece despite the comedy.  Ivanova’s dream, as she explains to Sheridan, is all about her confusion having broken away from Earth and everything she knows.  She tells John she’s not sure who she is anymore.  (“Not knowing who I am…”)  Those who remember past episodes may recall John’s dream in All Alone in the Night, when Susan says to him “do you know who I am?”  She was also wearing black; the same color as their newly acquired uniforms.  Sheridan, meanwhile, is really starting to show his affection for Delenn (“I’d like to see you tonight”), having her over and cooking a Minbari dish … that perhaps needed some work.  (Is it me, or is Flarn actually just tofu?)  And Delenn is starting to realize her feelings are growing stronger too.  “As you say, maybe something in the air.”  I love the gradual buildup with their relationship; it’s not like most series.  If I have one issue with what happens here it’s that Sheridan’s camera can be turned on by the incoming caller!  I guess the best practice is: get dressed in the bathroom!!

The main thrust of the episode is that some Centauri named “Abrahamo Lincolni”  – I LOVE this name – is helping Narn to safety.  This is discovered to be Vir but the more Susan digs, the more she doubts Vir’s claims that he has been helping them.  Things get worse after Vir is attacked while walking with his new girlfriend, Lyndisty.  Of course, the target of the attack was actually Lyndisty, “a true Centauri”, for murdering so many Narn.  She’s a real piece of work and sees nothing wrong with what she does!   Sure, JMS wanted us to think it might be Vir, but it takes little to make the leap for the viewer.  But here’s the thing: Susan and John confront Vir because they now believe he is responsible for 2000 Narn deaths.  I take issue with this.  First, knowing Vir even a little bit, it’s evident that he would never do it.  He has a moral compass!  This alone should dissuade the command staff from suspecting him but we don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to piece together that two people were attacked: Vir AND Lyndisty!  Why would neither Susan nor John suspect that this had less to do with Vir than his girlfriend?    Where this may bring the episode down, Vir himself that brings it back up.  Vir had always been a secondary character to me; a shadow (ahem, sorry…) of the more important Londo.  But he rises above his Centauri upbringing and gives a rousing speech about saving the Narn.  He not only has a moral compass, he also has a map!  He shows that there are some Centauri who still know right from wrong and he elevates the episode from light fare to something a little more.  (No, this isn’t one we will talk about often when reminiscing about the series, but it had its place!)

In the end, what it does do is two-fold: it brings Vir back to the station and it gives Londo access to his conscience.  Londo is not happy about what Vir did; he considers it anti-Centauri and that could have a negative impact on Vir, but Londo did have a conscience himself at one point and his recent act of moving away from Morden proves that he knows some right from wrong.  Vir could potentially influence Londo more than Londo would expect.  And besides, as we saw very comedically in this story as Londo tries to kill a bug and admits he doesn’t like anything with eight legs, once he finds out that a Shadow ship looks like a spider, he may realize just how wrong he’s been up until now.  (Well, I guess based on his dreams, he already suspects, but he doesn’t know for sure!)

In the end, Vir is the star of the episode and he comes up with a great name, to boot!  And I have to admit, I am far happier with the romance of this story than I’d have expected.  We needed it if only for a means of pushing their arc along.  Will John and Delenn have their moment?  Or will someone pop up on camera one time too many and scare Delenn away?  We’ll have to keep tuning in to find out!  ML

The view from across the pond:

The majority of this episode seemed to me to be a massive step down from the previous one in terms of quality, and I thought we were heading for the first clunker in quite a while. I was very wrong about that.

What led me down that train of thought was that sic transit Vir* appeared to be a comedy episode, and not a very good one at that. We had the most clichéd of recurring dreams, Londo trying to kill some bugs, Sheridan cooking a bad meal, an arranged marriage played for laughs with all the awkward comedy about Vir asking Ivanova what he should do with his six… well, he’s never got past one, anyway. All fun, but rather disposable. We also had a repeat of some old problems of logic that beset Babylon 5: the guns with no stun settings, so the criminals can’t be interviewed afterwards (they’re dead), and the screens in people’s private rooms that can be turned on by a caller without the person in the room approving. Peeping Toms must abound on Babylon 5.

After the high drama of the civil war and the approach of the Shadow war (or so says Ivanova in the opening credits) looming, I suppose JMS could be forgiven for inserting a comedy episode at this point in the run. It’s what most sci-fi series would do, after all. But instead all the silliness was lulling the viewer into a false sense of security, before the vicious holocaust allegory landed, and it was powerful stuff.

There have been several parallels with WW2 recently, and at times they have been self-critical, in particular the obvious comparison between the US reluctance to get involved in the War and that of the Minbari. If anyone from the US reading this can stomach it, read up about the fate of the MS St Louis in 1939. This episode instead turns on the obvious target: the Nazis.

So Vir’s historical equivalent should be obvious to most viewers: Oskar Schindler. The Centauri are methodically killing the Narn on their home world, and Vir has abused his position of power to help 2000 of them escape to a new life.

“I had them sent to other worlds, got them medical care.”

The parallel could hardly be more blatant. Unluckily for Vir, his new wife is a monster.

“It’s not their fault. They’re simply inferior. It’s genetics.”

This is of course our equivalent to Nazi eugenics research.

“You could see the flames rising up into the night”.

…and this, the death camps and exterminations. Lyndisty and her father have been “culling” Narns based on aggressive tendencies.

“I’ve done it hundreds of times myself.”

This was a dramatic shift from comedy to something completely horrific, and it worked brilliantly, with one exception that I will get to in a moment. But first I am reminded of an email conversation I had with Mike about a previous episode where he took issue with my condemnation of the Centauri strip club, way back in Season One. My position was that it was unthinkable that a sufficiently advanced society to reach for the stars would have strip clubs 300 years into the future. He suggested that I should not be standing in judgement over another culture. However, as I pointed out to him this is a fictional world, and as a viewer we are invited to stand in judgement. That was never clearer than this episode, where the Centauri are explicitly shown to be a very close equivalent to Nazi eugenicist mass murderers. I’m quite comfortable standing in judgement over those. So far Vir has stood as a shining example of the exception that proves the rule… until now. Because once again, JMS snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. The episode ends on a light note, with Vir giving Lyndisty a passionate goodbye kiss.

“What relationships don’t have their ups and downs?”

As misplaced humour goes, this is a particularly egregious example. Vir has been set up as a saint among sinners, the one person who will take a stand and dare to help the Narn. He has personally saved the life of 2000 of them. He has just found out that his “wife” has murdered hundreds of Narn and is unrepentant about her hideous beliefs. Earlier I called her a monster, and I stand by that word. He shouldn’t even be able to look at her without feeling sick, let alone kiss her and crack a joke about his marriage. So while the transition from comedy to tragedy was brilliant, the clumsy attempt to return to comedy at the end was a horrible misstep. In the end, comedy and horror turned out to be uncomfortable bedfellows, much like the Vir the saint and his Nazi wife.  RP

* my schoolboy Latin won’t allow me to capitalise the title, with the exception of Vir, which makes a little more sense in context as the name of a person rather than the Latin for “man”.  The onscreen title doesn’t give us a definitive answer, as they are always all in capitals.

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.

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