We’ve made it to one of the biggest episodes of the entire series and it’s a massive episode in terms of bringing the story together. It’s also the episode that convinced me JMS was a genius and I saw the level of greatness televised SF could really achieve. Growing up a Star Trek fan was wonderful but it never aspired to such vast heights, sticking instead to the tried and tested format of stand-alone episodes. B5, by contrast, told an epic story and it was planned out from the start. It wasn’t always obvious but when we arrive here, we are at the point where so much comes together. Whether we look at hidden passwords (fasten and zip; both part of the discussion Michael and Jeff shared on the way to Babylon 4 in Babylon Squared from season one) to the biggest reveal of all, this 2 part episode is a delightful deluge of turning the plot threads back on themselves.
When the story opens, a hooded man opens a 900 year old box to reveal someone knew Jeffrey Sinclair would be on Minbar on that very day. The hooded man is revealed to be Sinclair himself. We are in for a treat having our “good and dear friend, commander Sinclair” back in the show, and it was so good to see him again. To ramp things up further, Susan hears a message coming from Sector 14, the location Babylon 4 went missing … the voice is her own. Oh, yeah… timey wimey! Their mission, should they choose to accept it, is this: stop the sabotage of Babylon 4 six years ago, then steal the station and take it into the past to weaken the Shadow forces for the war they are preparing to fight now. And if it wasn’t clear before, the moment we see Zathras, we could be sure that this would tie in with Babylon Squared. The jigsaw is being put together for us… finally!
By the nature of the two part episode, this could be a long review but to compound matters, we have a lot of ground to cover. So rather than go over the episode itself, I’m going to look at the events and talk about how amazing the storytelling was. Some of it gets “flashbacks” to remind us and while some may not be big fans of flashbacks, when we’re looking at 3 seasons (at the time, seen 1 year apart), this is a necessity. So let’s start with the elephant in the room: Jeffrey Sinclair.
From the very start, there was a “hole in his mind” (The Gathering). During Soul Hunter, he was told “they’re using you”, and later Delenn says they were right about him. When he meets Neroon, he’s told he speaks like a Minbari. Now, if you’re paying attention to the alien language, Marcus refers to Jeffrey as “Entil’zha”. By the end of the episode, we understand why. But cast your minds back to Kosh in The Gathering, who was poisoned through his hand; a hand that never left his encounter suit. He greets Sinclair with the line: “Entil’Zha Valen”. It was the natural thing to do to shake hands with the original Minbari who helped fight the Shadow War 1000 years ago. Valen became a sacred figure to the Minbari (“In Valen’s name”) because he helped save their race centuries before. So it’s no wonder that the Earth/Minbari war ended when they scanned him and found he had “a Minbari soul”. They scanned him with the Triluminary, a device handed down from 1000 years ago, and found he had the soul of their greatest Minbari leader. A Minbari not born of Minbari! To compound the timey-wimey-ness, Sinclair is given the Triluminary now and he takes it back in time to go through the same process Delenn went through to become a mix of the two races (Chrysalis). In other words, the device he used was handed down through the centuries, because someone in the future gave it to him to bring into the past. “He is the closed circle. He is returning to the beginning.”
As for the station, we always knew Babylon 4 fell through time but we never expected it was part of the war that we are dealing with now. But Jeffrey has a flashback of Michael fighting and possibly dying so he refuses to let Michael in on the mission. Does that change the vision? It seems like it must as Jeff was there in his younger body, not as he is now. Presumably something changed. That means events can be changed, but perhaps that’s just from the now-aborted timeline; the one where Susan said the station was being boarded and destroyed. The destruction of B5 is averted and that time line vanishes. But the events of Babylon Squared still have to take place. Zathras’s comment to Sinclair in Season 1 is “not the one… not the one!” Even that makes sense now as “the one” is the future for that version of Jeff. “You’re the one who was, you are the one who is, you are the one who will be.” A beautiful symmetry is created between the three heroes of this story even tying in nicely to the Minbari belief in the sacred number three. (And I can’t ignore the comedy when Zathras comments about being a beast of burden, having a tough life and probably a tough death but “at least there’s symmetry”.)
Meanwhile, as John becomes unstuck in time (a Slaughterhouse 5 reference…), we see the conclusion of Londo’s dream which was also introduced at the beginning of the series. Londo dies at the hands of G’Kar. But we still have some mysteries left, like why does G’Kar turn up then? And what happened to his eye? Not everything is spelled out yet… but if we pay attention, it will be! But this also means Lady Morella’s prophesy comes true between Vir and Londo that one will be Emperor when the other dies. And with this episode, we know the sad fate of both Londo and G’Kar. (We may know the end, but their stories are not over yet!) And John discovers that in the future, he has a son with Delenn. He also learns that they win the war but there is fallout from that victory. Centauri Prime lies in ruins. It is clearly sometime in the future (in Midnight on the Firing Line, Londo says “maybe 20 years”) so does that mean the war goes on that long? Or can there be that much fallout from it. Delenn also begs John, “Do not go to Z’ha’dum!” She also has a future vision of her own and someone saying “hello” scares her enough to drop a snowglobe. When does that take place exactly…? We know the end of the puzzle now, but we still have a little more work to finish it up.
This episode also explains why Delenn was kept off-camera in Babylon Squared, because during that episode, she was fully Minbari, but her involvement in this episode proved that she had undergone her change and had to be kept offscreen. Overall, this is an episode chock full of greatness and while we had to wait over half the series to get here, for me, it was worth the wait. The buildup was absolutely worth it.
I once wrote to Straczynski to thank him for this amazing series and to my surprise, he wrote back. It wasn’t a long email, but he thanked me for my appreciation. I stand behind my statements: this series was the greatest science fiction series I’d ever seen on TV. It has a number of weak episodes, sure, but it has an overall arc that I have never seen done better. To be honest, I hope to one day. I hope something comes along and is strong enough to derail B5. But until that day comes, I salute JMS for creating this work, and this episode just drives home all that was amazing about the series. And we still have a little over 2 seasons to go… ML
The view from across the pond:
“He is the closed circle. He is returning to the beginning.”
“The beginning of what?”
…and then he walks off without answering. It seems my relief at getting rid of Mr Riddles was a little premature. Are all the Vorlons so infuriating? So I didn’t welcome the sight of another one of them, but there was a much happier comeback: the return of Sinclair!
Seeing Sheridan and Sinclair going off on an adventure together, on the command deck of their ship, was quite a strange sight, almost like seeing two Doctors together in Doctor Who or two captains of the Enterprise. It felt like a big moment, but something that isn’t quite supposed to happen.
To a certain extent it felt like a mopping up exercise, typing up the loose ends from Season One, which necessitated an awful lot of flashbacks to explain the complex goings on. Michael O’Hare’s departure presumably caused JMS to rethink a few details from Season Two onwards, although it’s quite obvious at times the extent to which Sheridan is a substitute Sinclair, adopting his storyline, particularly when it comes to Delenn. But there was one big loose end where it wasn’t possible for Sheridan to just step into Sinclair’s shoes, and that was Babylon Squared.
Continuity is a big thing for Babylon 5 and I know this is what Mike always praises the series for: the forward planning, the coherence, the way everything ties in together, the way details from previous episode aren’t forgotten. And yes, I do think that’s admirable, but I have argued for a long time that continuity should always be secondary to telling a good story, and here I think are a couple of episodes that illustrate that point very well, because War Without End is a confusing mess that relies on the viewers remembering what happened two years ago. All the flashbacks in the world aren’t going to help, unless you flashback the entire 45 minutes. The original episode is complex, and distilling it down to a few black and white flashback sequences just doesn’t work. In fact, the minute your episode requires flashback sequences I would argue that something has already gone wrong. I think Mike would argue the opposite strongly, but I think the dangling thread of Babylon Squared should have simply been forgotten, rather than trying to cobble together this torturous box-checking episode, where everything that is fated to happen falls into place.
It never quite all fits together either. It’s not just the many little continuity errors with Babylon Squared that matter, so much as the original intent being lost. Babylon Squared was clearly originally intended to be picked up again, presumably the following year, with Sinclair and Garibaldi returning to B4. What happens instead feels like a shoehorned-in sidestep, with Ivanova’s “they’re killing us” cry for help thrown in to illustrate that things aren’t entirely fatalistic and that Sinclair and Garibaldi’s original future can be changed.
JMS is such a frustrating writer at times. I mean, he’s clearly a genius, but sometimes I think he loses sight of the viewer. He drops in all these little hints and references to future things, and because he can hold all that in his head, he assumes the viewer will as well. So when these things crop up, I just wonder if he thinks everyone will go “aha! So that was what that meant!”, when in reality most viewers were probably experiencing a flicker of recognition and a fuzz of confusion. I felt like I needed a scientific calculator and spreadsheet to watch these two episodes. It’s not good enough to just decide that your work requires a high level of concentration and dedication, unless you want to exclude the 99% of the audience who aren’t fanboy obsessives. It actually brought something into sharp focus for me. There have been endless American sci-fi series that throw mystery after mystery at the viewers, a dubious tradition that can possibly even be traced back to Babylon 5, but the really big hitter is obviously Lost. My frustration with Lost, like most people’s, was how it asked question after question and then the answers were either absent or unsatisfactory or took far too long. But this episode of B5 made me realise something. Even when the answers are provided to all the questions, it’s still a bad way to tell a story. Returning to a complex story two years later simply isn’t a very good thing to do. So Lost wasn’t just a mess because it didn’t answer its questions. If it had answered them it would still have been a mess. It simply asked far too many in the first place, and here’s where I think it connects so strongly with its predecessor.
Oh, and once again, JMS doesn’t know how to structure a two-parter, with episode one just fizzling out. It could have ended with the revelation of Sheridan meeting future Londo, among several other actual cliffhanger endings that were sat there begging to be used, but instead what JMS does is write a 90 minute episode and then slice it in half in a fairly arbitrary manner. For a story that championed the beginning, middle and end, it mastered only two of those three. I did enjoy that theme though. A while ago I wrote about the power of the number three in the world of Doctor Who, but it really applies to anything fictional. I think this is the first time I have ever seen that truism actually vocalised within a work of fiction, and it does illustrate the depth of JMS’s understanding of how storytelling works on a nuts and bolts level, even if he often fails to fit those nuts and bolts together in his writing.
So Sinclair turns himself into a Minbari and becomes Valen. Yeah, I don’t really care. What I did care about was the return of Michael O’Hare, and not getting him back together with Jerry Doyle for at least one scene was the emotional crime of the year. Forget the spreadsheet of hints and prophesies and questions and answers. Give me something to care about. Sinclair’s last hurrah never quite delivered, but I have nothing but respect for the actor and the character he played. Both will be missed. RP