Watching season 4 of Babylon 5 in binge-mode is fantastic. Watching it in episodic format is a bit more challenging. It’s not that Exercise of Vital Powers is a bad episode; it’s not! It’s actually good but after coming off last week’s insanely strong episode, this is a talky affair reminiscent of classic Star Trek in the amount of exposition that we are subjected to. The action is muted and the story seems to take a slow turn. Slow, but not unnecessary. Both the A and the B plots help move the story along.
The B plot features Lyta and the frozen telepaths. Sheridan gives the insubordinate doctor, Stephen Franklin, the task of reviving the telepaths and it’s only Lyta’s abilities that are able to stabilize them. The episode serves a few purposes here: it reminds us just how powerful Lyta is. It also shows that there is a way to use the telepaths, though we can only speculate how at this point. And it shows that Sheridan is asking a very difficult thing of Dr. Franklin. But it also shows the character of Franklin and I admit, I don’t like it. Maybe it’s that I’m in a management role and I recognize the value of having people I trust under me. When Sheridan tells Franklin what he’s up to, the first thing Franklin does is starts talking to Lyta. Yeah, there’s a good chance she already knows what he’s about to say, what with her being a superpowered telepath, but Franklin starts sharing patient information with her. Hello, PHI?? Sure, I’m in a business where I know patient confidentiality is a hugely important thing, and I also know this is a TV show, but what he does is just plain wrong. It’s not even as if she doesn’t know who Franklin is talking about! The worst part is, Franklin demanded Sheridan tell him what was going on. Did Sheridan anticipate that his friend would then go blabbing to the resident god-like telepath? I’m guessing not.
Meanwhile Michael is meeting Edgars (presumably named for Princess of Mars author, Edgar Rice Burroughs). Edgars is a smooth talker who employees telepaths to read Michael’s mind. But the question of whether he remembers anything is answered with a lie, yet the telepath indicates Michael was speaking the truth. Why? Presumably Edgars doesn’t trust telepaths because he promptly has this one killed rather than pay her for her work. While the whole sequence with Edgars is slow and by far the less interesting part of the story, this is where the show becomes amazingly timely for a second week running. Edgars explains Clark’s rise to power: “Nobody takes power! They’re given power… because we’re stupid or afraid or both. The Germans in 1939… They handed over power to people they thought could settle scores …restore their prestige … then denied it was their fault.” The entire discussion about Clark felt like it could have been on our news channels even now. Again, I feel like I shouldn’t change to political commentary but that is the very essence of this episode and where the season is taking us. I’ll leave it to Roger to give the historical background but this is what made the episode so intriguing to me. It felt … now. Still, I leave that to the judgment of our readers. The episode stands well enough on its own.
Barring that, the episode is all setup. Lise proves she’s a shallow woman who wants people to drop everything in their lives to come running for her or else she’ll show them and marry the first guy that is kind to her. Even if he’s 86 years older than her. Garibaldi still loves her, as the telepath found out so, we know something is going to happen there. If only we could get Edgars out of the way! Michael maintains Sinclair’s belief that “everybody lies”, although Sinclair seemed way more sympathetic to why people lie. But the biggest part of the buildup is that Michael is prepared to give Sheridan over to Clark. It started at the beginning of the episode where Michael gave another “captain’s log” saying of Sheridan, “…maybe he wants to take over the whole operation for himself…” but it’s not until the end of the episode that he agrees to turn Sheridan over and he’ll find Sheridan through his father. Michael looks at his reflection in the mirror (he’s done that a few times since his capture at the end of season 3) and he sees a warped version of himself. Is that what happened: something warped him? Guess we still have to find out!
I would have preferred another episode like last week, but this is a necessary step to what’s coming. I just wish it could have been a bit less exposition-heavy. Maybe the payoff will be worth it. ML
The view from across the pond:
Well now I don’t know what to believe. The juxtaposition between this episode and the previous one is a work of genius from JMS. Last week Sheridan was the big hero, turning a liberation into a recruitment drive, fighting the good fight to put an end to atrocities committed by Clark and his Earth forces. This week we are shown the other side of the coin: the possibility that Sheridan’s motivations are hubristic and power-hungry:
“That’s just what I’m saying. Unless Sheridan’s stopped he’ll tear Earth apart. Now if you ask me, I think he wants to take over himself. I can’t let him do that.”
Up until this point JMS has been writing Sheridan largely as the good guy and Garibaldi as the treacherous bad guy, so taking the viewers to the point where they might even think “well, maybe…” is quite a turnaround, but this episode very nearly pulls a 180 on us. That happens because we are reminded of how Sheridan has changed since Z’ha’dum, and the mystery surrounding his time there. Importantly, this is not just Garibaldi’s perspective. Franklin notices the change in him as well:
“The Sheridan I know, he never would have told me what this one did.”
The story this week is cleverly told entirely from the perspective of Franklin and Garibaldi, with Sheridan kept as a potentially dangerous figure in the background almost as much as Clark. This helps seed the doubts in our minds, and the arguments Edgars puts forward to Garibaldi are compelling.
“He’s out of control, he’s running scared, he needs to be stopped, but not by a military action. You have to work from inside the system.”
This is an idea that is remarkably ahead of its time, especially when Edgars starts talking about “a war of information, a war of secrets, a war of intimidation”. JMS certainly knows how to write dialogue that makes you think.
“You’re still labouring under the notion that people take power. Nobody takes power. They’re given power by the rest of us, because we’re stupid or afraid or both.”
Just when the episode brings us to a point where we might actually be ready to believe that Sheridan is the misguided bad guy and Garibaldi and Edgars are offering the true way forward to defeat Clark, the rug is pulled out from under our feet once again, with Edgars’s secret experimentation on telepaths. So he is a monster after all, planning… what? Genocide of telepaths? A biological war? At the very least the means to keep telepaths completely under control by monopolising an antidote – that’s my guess. And then Garibaldi suggests getting to Sheridan via his father, and loses our sympathies in an instant. As plans go, that’s a particularly nasty one.
As a newcomer to B5, watching it all for the first time, I’ll engage in a little speculation at this point, which I hope will be either interesting or at least amusing if I’m barking up the wrong tree. I think Garibaldi is under the control of Psi Corps and doesn’t know it, and that’s what happened when he disappeared. The clue was in the interrogation. Before Edgars pulled his Columbo move (“Oh, one more thing. Are you still in love with my wife?”), which I think was a red herring to make us forget about what we had just seen, Garibaldi was asked if he remembered anything about his disappearance, and he said no. The telepath indicated that as the truth. But we know he was lying. We know his memories have been returning. I think she was protecting him because he’s Psi Corps’ man on the inside, and I think when Bester said a couple of weeks ago that Garibaldi was getting closer to where he needed him to be, that place is with Edgars. At some point, I think a switch will be flicked and Garibaldi will betray Edgars. Somebody needs to. But that doesn’t negate the possibility that Sheridan really isn’t himself, and has changed for the worse compared to the man he used to be. The series is set up for a fascinating battle with Garibaldi on one side and Sheridan on the other, and we can’t even say for sure that they are both fighting a common foe, only that they probably think they are. Everything is now a shade of grey. RP