Babylon 5: Intersections in Real Time

Babylon 5 Artwork

Artwork by Katie Marriott

Intersections in Real Time may be one of the hardest Babylon 5 episodes to watch.  It’s gritty, dark and entirely devoted to beating Sheridan down and making him crack.  The residents of the Village could have learned something from Clark’s people.  Or perhaps Sheridan learned a thing or two from #6.  (There have been enough Prisoner references throughout the series to make me wonder!  Even the ominously titled Room 17 is probably a mixed reference between George Orwell’s Room 101, with a reference to the 17 episodes of The Prisoner; a show about a man who spends almost every episode being tortured.)  The difference here is that Clark, presumably, has telepaths in his side, so I don’t fully understand why he doesn’t utilize them.  Maybe they are not willing to break the law even for the president and he may not have enough power over them to force the issue.  Whatever the case is, this is a powerful episode and it never lets up.

It’s hard not to equate this to The Prisoner.  The interrogator might as well be #2 considering he will be replaced by a “new #2”.  However, he seems a far more effective one than those of the Village.   He uses time of day to throw Sheridan off his game.  He uses pain givers, last seen in season 1’s Deathwalker to hurt John just because of a contradiction.  He messes with Sheridan with food, tempting him after days of not eating, only to poison him just enough to keep him throwing up all night.   He taunts John with news of his father.  He forces a Drazi to confess in front of the captain, then appears to murder him.  Later, the same Drazi smiles at Sheridan after being dressed as an executioner.  This “#2” uses hours of rhetoric, played over and over to get into Sheridan’s head.  The new #2 arrives at the end to start the cycle all over again.  We are truly being given intersections in real time – uninterrupted glimpses of what Sheridan has to endure, without hope of escape.  #6 held out.  How does John do it?

I think a big part of it is his attitude and it’s what keeps me watching every time.  He puts his ideas into words quite well.  “You just have to say ‘no I won’t’ one more time than they say ‘yes you will.’”  I love that idea.  I can’t imagine being able to stay as strong as Sheridan does, but I’d like to imagine that I’d remember this line and maybe I could hold out!  “If just one person refuses to bow down, refuses to give in…”  Sheridan realizes he may die, but he keeps that belief against his captors.  When asked, “But can you win”, he replies evenly, “every time I say no!”  And even though we know he does not escape, we feel a sense of hope.   He finds hope by imagining Delenn, his love.  And he finds hope in fighting back.  A great character!

Considering how relevant these last few episodes are, I figured I’d point out the one thing that struck me as believable in our real world.  When Sheridan is hearing about his crimes, a “Senator Ross Fowler” is mentioned.  The Interrogator says that the senator has nothing to do with Sheridan but the president has found him to be an annoyance, so why not frame him too.  Wow… does that sound familiar?  Moving on.  I do love the philosophy about truth being subjective, and how a soldier accepts that the face of truth changes on a daily basis.  Sheridan knows the words are being manipulated and the ideas are being skewed even though he’s being tortured.  Here again, even though the interrogator makes sense, Sheridan knows that following orders does not mean doing so blindly.  He will not give in!  And I love that he won’t accept “the preeminent truth of our time: you cannot beat the system.”  Because in the end, that’s what makes the episode.  He stands strong against his captors and he beats them every time he says no, just one more time than they can say yes.  ML

The view from across the pond:

When the Shadow War came to an end I suggested that whatever followed was inevitably going to be an anticlimax, and for about eight episodes that was exactly what happened. Over the last few episodes that just changed. I didn’t think that anything could top the drama of that war against a near-omnipotent foe, but I am glad to say that I was wrong about that, and that’s because I forgot about one important fact when it comes to drama. If you can’t top a big exciting story about a super-powered enemy with an even bigger story about an even more super-powered enemy, there is something else you can do instead. You can make it more personal.

This episode is a strong contender for the best episode of B5 ever made, but I use the word “best” with some trepidation. It is an utterly magnificent piece of work from all involved, but I wouldn’t describe it us enjoyable viewing as such. Seeing Sheridan tortured so effectively is fascinating, but not exactly fun.

It is an incredibly clever episode though, from a writer who thoroughly understands his subject matter. These are real world techniques: breaking down the body before breaking down the mind; the acceptance of small lies before bigger lies can be accepted; the recorded message that plays all night; time of day disorientation. All nasty stuff. The priority for the interrogator is not to discover information, although that is a factor, but to break Sheridan’s spirit to the point where he will make a full confession and become a broken man who can be used as an example.

I love an experimental episode of a long-running series, something that breaks the mould. This being virtually a two-hander certainly did that, with each scene in the episode an “intersection in real time” as the title suggests. Time passes between each scene, but apart from that there is no cutting; we are in real time for each individual scene. This was obviously going to live or die on the quality of the acting far more than any other episode. Bruce Boxleitner’s ability to come up with the goods was surely never in doubt, but the performance that really blew me away was Bruce Gray as the nameless interrogator. He does an amazing job, but of course a lot of the credit for his success has to go to JMS and also whoever did the casting. He looks like he might be an accountant or a clerk in another life. As JMS once said in an interview, he’s the “banal face of evil”. The following quote is from The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5:

“You look at most of the guys who ran Treblinka, or Bergen-Belsen, and they’re largely ordinary looking guys, who could be accountants or repair men or car salesmen. They’re us…and this was designed to remind us of that. The evil, mustache-twirling villain is too easy, and too far from the truth of it.”

Undoubtedly this is the key factor that makes this episode so great: the ability of somebody who is superficially just a boring everyman to do great evil, and to do so with shockingly clever manipulation. He had me fooled too. When it looked like the interrogator was trying to save Sheridan’s life and was moved by his failure to comply and what that meant for Sheridan, I believed it. The guy’s voice was cracking a little bit, as if he realised he had actually failed to save this man’s life. I bought it, and yet it was all a performance. Sheridan was never heading for an execution. Room 17 was simply another interrogation room, with another interrogator to take over the job. I didn’t see the Drazi’s part in the scheme coming either. Impressive… but I question the point of it.

I don’t pretend to know much about how this kind of thing would work in real life, but where do they go from here? Apart from there being no chance of winning his trust any more with the interrogator’s “honesty”, surely what has happened would give Sheridan hope, strengthen his resolve, and make him dig his heels in more than ever? If he wasn’t sure of one important fact before, now he must be in little doubt: his captors really don’t want to kill him.   RP

About Roger Pocock

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11 Responses to Babylon 5: Intersections in Real Time

  1. ShiraDest says:

    This and the Star Trek:TNG episide that was made with collaboration from Amnesty International are two important and fascinating episides, but not ‘fun’ watching, as you pointed out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • scifimike70 says:

      For me, the most daring torture scene dialogue ever is by Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who in Heaven Sent:

      “The first rule of being interrogated is that you are the only irreplaceable person in the torture chamber. The room is yours, so work it. If they’re going to threaten you with death, show them who’s boss.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • ShiraDest says:

        Very good point!
        Peter Capaldi as The Doctor? How many before or after Tom Baker was that? I’ve never seen The Doctor being tortured (by The Master in the new series when David Tennant was The Doctor?).
        Heaven Sent: I shall have to find that episode! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Roger Pocock says:

        How many Capaldi is after Tom is not a straightforward question to answer any more 😀 but you’ll find Tom’s episode listed here as the Fourth Doctor, and Capaldi’s as the 12th. As for the Master, beware SFMike, king of spoilers 😉 (he won’t mind me saying that – we’ve been friends for two decades or something like that).

        Liked by 2 people

      • ShiraDest says:

        🙂 Back to Dr. Who!! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        At least as far as Dr. Who and Star Trek may be concerned, the Junkyard can feel like a safe-enough place to share all that you, RP, ML and I know about specific episodes. It’s certainly safe enough for veteran Trekkers and Whovians who visit the Junkyard. For newcomers to both shows, it’s challenging. So we each learn to trust our instincts. 🖖🏻

        Liked by 2 people

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      Shira, Many thoughts. Doctor Who is, as you might gather, our base from which this website launched. Capaldi’s Doctor is perhaps among my favorites because his final season was just off the charts good. He has one of the best endings of any Doctor.
      The Trek episode you refer to must be the “there are 4 lights!” one, whose name I don’t recall. Really great episode.
      Re: SFMike, as we nicknamed him and that nickname stuck, as Roger said, we’ve been friends since early 2000/2001. Roger and I met a few years later. We are used to those sudden revelations from him. Brace yourself!
      This episode was an intense one. Did the Senator comment resonate uncomfortably for you as well?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. scifimike70 says:

    1984 and The Prisoner are the most classical SF portraits for torture. The classic Star Trek gave us Dagger Of The Mind. In Doctor Who we saw the 4th Doctor tortured by Sutekh. So when both this B5 episode and Trek TNG’s “Chain Of Command” first aired in the 90s, there might have been some older SF audiences who were prepared enough and some younger ones who weren’t. The 90s was of course a time when the censorship of torture scenes could permit considerably more, even with the drama between the torturer and the torture victim naturally being the most captivating. So it’s quite respectable that Amnesty International was involved in helping to make both Trek TNG’s and B5’s depictions as important as they still are today.

    Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. JMS originally intended for “Intersections In Real Time” to be the final episode of Season Four, which would have been one hell of a cliffhanger ending, and a definite gut punch for viewers.

    Plans changed when it appeared that B5 would only run for four seasons, not five. This resulted in JMS removing several planned episodes and subplots from Season Four and wrapping everything up as neatly as possible in a much shorter time frame.

    Of course, once Season Four was competed JMS *then* found himself able to make a fifth year, so he dusted off some of the stuff he cut out of year four and used it in year five, but because it was not in its original narrative place it wasn’t as effective and did not make as much sense. (Byron and the rogue telepaths who settle on the station at the start of Season Five are the clearest example of this, as they were originally going to be introduced midway through the previous season, when the station was still independent from Earth.)

    I think this also resulted in two somewhat flawed seasons: Four was rushed and Five was padded out. It’s unfortunate that the narrative got so compromised due to the behind the scenes production problems.

    Liked by 1 person

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