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

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6 Responses to Babylon 5: Ship of Tears

  1. valandhir says:

    “We have a weapon.” I am sorry to say, but I think you both miss a point here. Because the line “We have a weapon” shows a lot of negative points about Sheridan. He does not care about telepaths as people, he sees them only in terms of their usefulness. He berates Bester, when they find the ship and find people aboard instead of weapon. Any decent, or moral person would have been glad to have kept a number of fellow humans out of the shadows hands, especially at so little cost. But no, not Sheridan, because they are not people, they are telepaths. When you look ahead to see where this arc ends, and how he uses them later on, it shows that he is not so much better than Bester.

    Everyone complains about Bester and his fascist attitude all the time here, and in other blogs, but strangely few people see that Bester’s attitude is in direct relation to how telepaths are treated throughout the show. That almost all characters on the show either dislike them on principle, or use the Psi Corps (which actually was created by non telepaths and gets it rules set by non Telepaths) as an excuse to dislike them. And even the “good guys” care only about them as much as they need to use them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      Bester and Psi Corps are the area of the show that is clearest in it’s WW2 allegory, so it’s extremely hard to sympathise with him, but I’m no great Sheridan fan either. I’m not sure if you’ve read much beyond this article (?) but I would hope I’ve been reasonably fair in my reaction towards the Byron storyline and the actions of Sheridan, and have found myself often critical of Sheridan’s actions. Mike is much more the Sheridan fan than I am, but I’ll let him reply for himself! I think you make a valid point here, and I do agree that Sheridan doesn’t seem to particularly care about telepaths beyond their usefulness. His treatment of Lyta in the final season is not great to say the least.

      Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        Sheridan, whether you’re a fan of him or not, has proven what many such characters with dislikeable traits have proven. Namely that they can still be interesting enough, even if not quite likeable enough, as characters. Babylon 5 was therefore much more interesting than Star Trek for its more conflicted hopes for peace in the galaxy. It can take main characters who still have serious issues to overcome to reflect that realism for us.

        Liked by 1 person

      • DrAcrossthePond says:

        I definitely am a fan of Sheridan, though that doesn’t mean I like everything he does. I mean think of this; Kirk or Picard? Kirk is my preferred captain… unless I had to report to him. Then I’d WAY rather work for Picard. It’s just that Kirk was the one I grew up with and far more entertaining! Sheridan is a good captain, but he’s not without flaw. In fact, flipping back to J-L Picard, he’s almost too ideal to be believable (which is what made the series Picard so painful to see him fall from glory). Sheridan makes mistakes. Londo’s comment about “your war” (in War Without End) really is because Sheridan screwed up. He caused the war instead of playing fair.
        His treatment of Lyta is another example. But I think Sheridan walks the line between being the paragon and the flawed man more effectively than any Trek captain ever did. And his story with Delenn is far more rewarding than any Trek captains romances.
        Sure that might not be fair comparing B5 and Trek, but I’m just using that as an example. Point is, Sheridan is flawed, but a well rounded man. (Not to mention speaking of well rounded, the whole story with his family even shows that!) ML

        Liked by 1 person

      • valandhir says:

        Sorry for not replying sooner (I missed there was a response here). Regarding Star Trek, I have watched it (though not in my childhood but as a young adult, being born and raised in East Germany made those shows come to my life rather late) and I was never quite taken with Trek. If it came to the question of Kirk and Picard, it’s Picard hands down, the man has brains and intelligence, Kirk and brawn and snark.

        Actually, I found “Picard” not painful at all, I found the old captain quite fascinating (pardon the pun) and the way he picked himself up from that isolated life and went back into the chaos was good to watch. Yes, the show had flaws, but it also had very good questions, about what happens to paradise, when it becomes threatened.

        I’d go with the “Sheridan is a flawed human” if he was not that much built up as the good guy throughout the story. I guess, if any sci-fi show ever gave me an answer on the entire “good guy” problem, it came only recently in the Expanse. As Naomi says there “We do good when and where we can.” It’s the most honest statement I ever heard about it in a sci-fi show.

        When it comes to flawed characters I found Londo (who did far more evil) much more interesting than Sheridan. But then Londo has an old-world vibe, and when he talks of the Royal Court I sometimes find myself thinking of Vienna. Odd though that might sound. While I fundamentally believe that the scariest villains are those who believe that they are on the right side of things, that they are the good guys, Sheridan does not make that cut.

        Lastly, the Romance of Delenn and Sheridan feels to me a bit like a discussion about the Aragorn and Arwen and trope in LotR. With her coming from an ancient race, being the much older of the two (and who will live on much longer than him) and him being the younger, human leader.

        Liked by 1 person

      • DrAcrossthePond says:

        Valendhir, there’s a ton of LotR references throughout B5. I mean, the mere name Z’Ha’Dum and Khazad-dûm are similar not to mention the fall of Gandalf into the abyss and Sheridan’s fall. I mean the B5/LotR references are everywhere so that doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. When I watched LotR last, I was making way more connections than my addled brain is making now. But I agree with the ideas 100%
        Re: Picard – yeah, great character, great captain, but too Goody-Two-Shoes. Not that I didn’t watch every single episode ever, and loved him throughout it, but he’s a true paragon and that tends to feel forced.
        Now a big thing for me and Kirk is that I was watching at 3 years old in 1975. That’s not a joke either. Sure, I probably had no idea what I was seeing but over the years I watched it whenever I could and as I got older, it started to mean something. Picard wasn’t introduced until I was 15 in 1987 so I’d had a decade and a half of Kirk and crew – they will always be my favorites no matter how good Picard and crew were.
        All that ties back to B5 though: I saw a show that I walked away from 6 episodes in when it was first aired only to come back and find a series that showed what SF TV could really do so naturally B5 and Sheridan became icons to me.
        Now, you’re comparing The Expanse to a show from 30 years ago, but its a bit unfair to B5 because the Expanse is incredible television but it learned from shows like B5. (Hell, binge viewing might have been invented by B5 and some credit this series with the way Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead would write out key characters mid-season!) I agree Naomi’s line (like many of them in season 5 especially) was a brilliant, honest line. But I still put B5 up on a plinth because it was so… new!
        Are there better SF shows? Probably. But I credit this with starting something that is still going strong today! ML

        Liked by 1 person

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