When Roger and I started our Babylon 5 Friday’s, we never planned where episodes of Season 5 were going to fall but we managed to land our holiday, New Year’s Day, on a Brakiri holiday, The Day of the Dead. And while that might sound ominous to start a year this way, it’s actually rather good! The Day of the Dead is about closure. The new day dawns with a renewed sense of peace. I think that’s a perfect way to start 2021! And who better to write that than the great Neil Gaiman, breaking JMS’s writing streak that goes back to season 2?
So, what’s the deal? Well, my wife and I recently had our backyard redone. You’re probably thinking I’m confused! Let me explain. When the bricks were laid and everything was done, the contractor had to come back one more time to put down this composite sand that would fill in gaps in the stones. I didn’t see the point; it looked great as it was. But when he was done, it looked ever better. Day of the Dead does something similar. It fills in gaps and makes the whole story look nicer. So, back to where I was starting, the idea is that once ever 200 years, a comet passes by the Brakiri homeworld and gives the people a chance to meet with the dead to gain some wisdom or knowledge. To do this, the Brakiri purchase a small section of B5 for a night and magically transport it back to their world. Anyone caught within is effectively on Brakir, experiencing … well whatever they are experiencing. Does it make sense? No, but I’m with Lochley when she tells Sheridan that not everything has an explanation. “We need a little mystery once in a while.” Too right! (Of course, for me, the mystery was: why did the Brakiri wait to the night of the comet to make the purchase? Shouldn’t they have been planning weeks in advance??)
With the composite sand that was this story, we learn about Lochley who lived a very different life to the one she lives now. Zoe (a Greek name meaning life – I eat at Zoey’s Kitchen all the time; I’ve learned a thing or two!) suffered a drug overdose. Lochley learns that it was intentional, which must have been a devastating thing to find out. It’s what lead her to pursue the life she now has. Londo gets his old girlfriend back for a night: the lady Adira. He never got that second visit because she was poisoned by Morden. Her return helps Londo recover a bit of his youth and makes him more receptive to the visiting comedians, Rebo and Zooty (who he previously said he didn’t understand). Michael also is greeted by an old flame, Dodger, killed during the events of the episode Gropos. She and Garibaldi share a night of laughter and stories. Lennier is visited by Morden, of all people, last seen beheaded outside the Centauri capital. Morden tells Lennier a few important things: “Delenn does not love you as you love her,” and “you will betray the [Rangers]”. He also implies that Lennier will find out about life after death “soon enough”. As I typed this, I realized, each person died violently; whether that’s significant or not might be in the mind of Neil Gaiman alone! In most cases, all of this is to fill in gaps. In a couple instances, we are given hints of things to come, like Kosh’s message: “when the long night comes, return to the end of the beginning.” (Kosh also met a rough end!) The result is a much nicer looking story of a station filled with real people.
That just leaves some basic observations. Rebo and Zooty, played by Penn and Teller, are a fun addition to the story. They are obviously a futuristic version of Laurel and Hardy, based solely on the movie reference: “Sons of the New Desert”. My grandfather and I were both fans of Laurel and Hardy, and “Sons of the Desert” was a movie I still remember watching with him! I especially like the machine that Zooty speaks through and the message Sheridan is given; a message which required Rebo’s filling in that gap at the start of the story.
Are there issues with the episode? Nothing noteworthy. Do we learn anything? Yes! Cameras should have covers or anyone could tap into your room while you’re in a compromising position, as does happen here. Again. And when a new captain takes over a big assignment, it probably helps to familiarize oneself with recent events. I can’t believe Lochley would say Sheridan has a message from “someone named Kosh”. As the great G’Kar says, “there’s no profit in “might-have-beens”; we learn from our mistakes.” Maybe that’s the point of The Day of the Dead. Maybe that will inform us in the coming year as well. I can’t help but wonder who would appear for me. I would hope it would be my dad or my grandfather (and with the Rebo and Zooty/Laurel and Hardy connection, maybe that’s apt). Well, I guess we’ll see if I get so lucky. Considering the coincidence of this episode being our New Year’s Day post, you never know. After all, we need a little mystery once in a while. ML
The view from across the pond:
Many years ago I read a review of the Doctor Who story The City of Death, and the final line of the review stuck in my head: “Just when you think it can’t get any better, John Bloody Cleese turns up.” That came to mind when I started watching this episode, because just when you think Season 5 of Babylon 5 can’t get any better, Penn and Teller turn up. I love those two. Oddly enough, their fame never really spread across to this side of the pond much. I had only vaguely heard of them until I saw them on the Celebrity Apprentice (itself shown in a graveyard slot over here, and several years behind the US broadcast), and then one of the minor channels showed the series where they were judging other magicians and figuring out the tricks. They are great magicians and entertainers. Their appearance in this episode is nothing more than the icing on the cake, with not much purpose to it other than to entertain us (and what better reason than that?) and also the importance of the discussion at the end about comedy being just as significant as politics, and quite right too.
This is the Neil Gaiman episode, and the amount of work he had to put into researching this shows his dedication to his craft. It brings to mind that hideous Open Air interview with Pip and Jane Baker (the one where a horribly misguided teenage Chris Chibnall gave them a lecture on how to write Doctor Who, criticising all the things he would later do in his own scripts); when asked if they had watched much Doctor Who before they started writing it, Jane said she hadn’t. But that’s a problem for a long-running series. In contrast, Gaiman clearly cared enough to want his script to fit in perfectly with the series he was writing for, and took the time to educate himself, spending hours reading old scripts to select the characters he wanted to use.
By and large they are good choices. Dodger with Garibaldi and Adira with Londo both work well. Zoe and Lochley is a new one on us, but provides us with some insight into the past of a relatively new character and reveals at least something about what made Lochley the person she is today. I always enjoy it when a writer doesn’t pull his punches with a story about the dangers of drugs, and Gaiman shows the extent to which Zoe was broken by them, “cold and sick” and ultimately dead. Like a lot of addicts, she also can’t stop lying to herself:
“We had such fun, didn’t we? Didn’t we have such fun?”
No. The only pairing that didn’t quite work for me was Morden and Lennier. While Lennier needed somebody to give him a few home truths about Delenn never being able to love him in the way he wants, perhaps somebody like Marcus would have been a better choice. As for Morden, what a great pairing with Vir that could have been. But at least all these different encounters showed how some of the regular characters reacted to the same situation in different ways, and Gaiman got all that spot on, demonstrating his depth of understanding of the series. Of course Londo would just accept it and take Adira to bed, while Garibaldi would ask Dodger what she is, and then cast her aside in favour of a mission from Lochley.
I could write about this episode all day. The notes I made stretch on for pages, this was such a fascinating and well-written episode, but to avoid trying anyone’s patience I will just finish up by acknowledging the confidence of Gaiman’s fantasy approach. I have occasionally argued that sci-fi is generally fantasy with a veil of technobabble. This episode shows what happens when an author refuses to lift that unnecessary veil. You might just as well let the fans speculate about some irrelevant boring explanation rather than stick in some scientific-sounding words. I think when Lochley dismissively mentions a couple of theories (which clearly don’t fit with what we have just seen), that is Gaiman making that exact point. They are deliberately half-hearted and Lochley is highly sceptical of what she obviously views as nothing more than technobabble herself. It’s the fan speculation made fiction, and it’s dismissed with the hand wave that it deserves. No, this is Gaiman telling us that he’s just written a B5 episode where the dead come back to life at Halloween. Deal with it. RP