Babylon 5: Ship of Tears

b5Ship of Tears is a strange episode because it falls into a weird middle ground in my mind.  It’s certainly not filler but it feels more like a prologue to me.  I think it’s a good story, and an important one, but something feels different.  Upon rewatching it, I figured out what it is.

There are, as with many B5 episodes, two plots.  The main one, the Ship of Tears, features Bester trying to get his love, Carolyn, back into his life and the tricks he employs to get that.  The secondary plot is by far the more interesting because it’s a character piece between G’Kar and Delenn, but (like every other scene with him in it) it’s carried by G’Kar.  So let’s focus first on the main plot because that will drive the rest of the season.  After employing some sneaky tricks to lure Sheridan to a distress call in space, Bester doesn’t appear to scan him.  Instead, he has come to ask for help and we are given a chance to see a softer side of the character.  Alas, not enough to appreciate him because he keeps being sneaky, antagonistic, and outright grotesque to Ivanova, speaking about her deceased mother.  Of course, with this guy, one has to wonder if there are ulterior motives, like trying to scan her when she smacks him.  In fact, right after that, he brings up the Shadows, claiming he has heard of them but suspects Sheridan and team know more about them than he does.  When, exactly, did he hear about them?  Or was this a … ploy?  The point is, he claims he wants help and Sheridan is willing to hear him out, but asks Susan if he can use her as bait.  If he proves to be on the up-and-up, they can listen, if not they can hold him “until we run out of food, or he dies of old age.”

After agreeing to help, Sheridan gives Bester a chance to see the White Star (“Mr. Bester.  Get the hell out of my chair!”) and successfully helps him recover Carolyn but they make a critical discovery after Carolyn merges with all the machinery in medlab.  The telepaths may hold the key to fighting the shadows.  This is a huge moment for Sheridan’s Army of Light.  But the final clue comes from (“do not thump the…”) Book of G’Quan.  Garibaldi figures it out and shares the revelation.  1000 years ago, Narn lost its telepaths…

But this all comes together over the Book of G’Quan because of B plot.   G’Kar has been asking to join what he knows is a new council.  His infinite patience has run out.  “Since space and time are curved, the infinite sooner or later bends back upon itself and ends up where it began, and so do I!”  He wants a debt paid and he pushes for entry into the Army of Light.  The burden of sharing the information with G’Kar falls upon Delenn who has to explain why they kept silent as his people were murdered.  This scene is incredible and intense and every damned minute of dialogue is edge of the seat stuff.  Katsulas really became G’Kar. He is a powerhouse as he warns Delenn that if she told him this while his people were being destroyed, he’d have killed her instantly.  Powerhouse performance, coupled with powerhouse restraint.  His understanding that “some are to be sacrificed if all are to be saved” allows him to accept that the decision was not an easy one to make but a necessary one.  Katsulas manages to express rage, hurt, and wisdom in his acting, and bear in mind, this dude is in prosthetics all day!  He is a master of his art!  When Delenn says that maybe one day he can forgive her, his response is simple, dignified, and probably as real as one could hope: “Perhaps.  But not today.”   G’Kar is allowed entry into the Army of Light, we see the new council chambers and it is amazing.  And not a moment too soon as the Shadows start attacking openly; they are no longer in hiding.  The prelude is over.

Before I wrap, now more excited than ever, I have to point out as a fan of The Prisoner, there are a few Prisoner-esque references here.  We’ve seen it since season 1’s Mind War when Bester offers the salute and says “be seeing you”: The Prisoner must have been a favorite of Straczynski. The episode opens with ISN back online feeding fake news to all.  Franklin says “He who controls information, controls the world.”  (What do you want?  Information!  Information!  Information!)  As if that’s not enough, immediately after Bester’s ship is escorted back to the station, the camera focuses on a wall with a pronounced number 6 encircled in blue.  While it’s not overt, it did remind me of all the tricks and ploys the various #2’s use in The Village.  Might they be relevant here?  Because, you see, even though Bester said that Sheridan’s fight is now his own, it is rather interesting that right after he left, the Shadows started attacking…  ML

The view from across the pond:

“If ISN is broadcasting the news again, maybe that means things are better back home.”

Yeah, right. That suggestion is Franklin-level stupidity because it’s blindingly obvious what’s going to happen next. Continuing with our WW2 allegory, the news station is now being used as a propaganda tool, selling lies to the masses. Apparently, “crime has been eliminated”, and martial law is “extremely popular”. As Franklin says, “he who controls information controls the world”. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of the power of the media to influence people, which is far from being merely a wartime phenomenon.

Returning this week to cause trouble as usual is Bester, and he moves our blatant WW2 allegory along a little further. He has some hair-raising opinions about “normals” being obsolete, the future belonging to telepaths, and “mundanes” being expendable.

“Mundanes breed like rabbits.”

This kind of elitist opinion, which elevates one group of people while dehumanising another, is highly reminiscent of Hitler’s opinions on the Aryan race of übermensch. But Sheridan and Bester now have a common enemy: the Shadows.

“They’re interfering with my plans for the future. I won’t have it.”

Bester tries to sell the old adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Although the proverb dates back at least to the Fourth Century BC, it was highly significant during WW2, in particular the Allies and the Soviet Union working together against Hitler. If B5 is to continue its WW2 allegory then it’s worth bearing in mind that the two enemies who work together, once victorious, are likely to become enemies again. History shows that much. Sheridan’s and Bester’s ideologies are never going to be compatible.

So a strong focus of this episode was the issue of which alliances should be made in a time of emergency, and for what reasons. Sheridan works with his enemy in order to gain a tactical advantage, but he has been blinded to a tactical advantage closer to home for some time.

“We’ve got a problem with G’Kar.”

So says Ivanova. She’s wrong. The contrast with Bester couldn’t be clearer. He is a serpent who will strike at the first opportunity. Working with him is dangerous. G’Kar on the other hand is an obvious ally who has proven himself loyal, useful and trustworthy. He is a man of his word. Sheridan’s attempt to delay his acceptance into his War Council has been actually pretty revolting, but he is motivated by the desire to protect his girlfriend. But it is time for Delenn to face up to G’Kar and confess her prior knowledge of the Centauri alliance with the Shadows. G’Kar’s measured response to that revelation illustrates how far he has come.

“I am honoured to be among you. This is a great day. A great day indeed.”

In a coincidence that is hard to believe, G’Kar’s introduction to the War Council just happens to be the exact moment where Garibaldi’s bit of light reading pays off (apparently with the help of a crossword dictionary), something that has been rumbling along for a few episodes. It’s a major revelation: the Shadows use humans to control their ships, and telepaths could potentially disrupt that control.

“We have a weapon. By God people, we have a weapon.”

What a can of worms that is. Sheridan really does need Bester and the Psi Corps now. As well as this chink in the armour of the Shadows, the episode also provided us with the only chink in Bester’s armour. It turns out that love really does conquer all:

“Somewhere along the line I discovered I was in love with her.”

This humanises the monster. It’s mature storytelling and it’s one of the things I am enjoying about B5 the most. JMS never quite plays the heroes vs villains game, without having shades of grey. The heroes are frequently flawed, and the villains are complex. Londo and Bester are both great examples of that. They are not moustache-twirlers, but their motivations are clear. We are shown the paths that bring them to where they are, and they are never entirely unsympathetic characters. They might be 95% villainous, but the 5% that remains is sufficient to make them feel much more like real people. In Bester’s case, that 5% is love.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of Co-writer on Editor of
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