Babylon 5: Darkness Ascending

Babylon 5 ArtworkYou can feel the shift in storytelling with Darkness Ascending.  The spoo has hit the fan and everything is coming together as we move into the final eight episodes of the series.  We are given an opening of Garibaldi having a bad dream.  He sees the death of all of his friends.  Written in their blood are the accusations: where were you?  He knows things are going to hell fast.  As the audience, we’re not sure if what he’s seeing has happened or is a dream until he sees himself.  Then we realize beyond a doubt that this is a dream.  He jolts awake only to find Lyta in his quarters; her eyes glow as she probes to see what she’s capable of.  She tells Michael that he won’t remember this and he wakes up again.  During the first dream, the audience could be pretty sure from the list of the dead and the warped camera angles that we were seeing a dream sequence.  We can’t be so sure with Lyta.  Was she in Michael’s room?  If so, what does she know?  Or was all that he saw but a dream within a dream?

The plot thickens as Lennier is able to get the much-needed proof of the attacks being made by Centauri vessels.  This is the piece of evidence that the alliance was looking for.  From a plot perspective, it’s a slow build to get to that one payoff.  But from a series perspective, this is a massively well done story.  We build on an entire series in one episode.   This is one of the episodes that exemplifies my love of the series because it’s highlighting the history of the characters we’ve come to care about.

The long term story building pays off when Lyta goes to see G’Kar.  She refers back to an offer he made her back in the pilot movie, The Gathering, where he offers her substantial money for her genetic material because the Narn have no telepaths.  He talked about finding her “pleasure threshold” and since the recent telepath storyline, Lyta becomes aware that she may not have one!  So in this instant, we’re acknowledging the past, but we’re also showing that the last six years have had an effect on them.  G’Kar is not the man he was back then; not the slightly smarmy negotiator trying to weasel his way into Lyta’s britches.  He’s grown.  Yes, we can see by the very look that Katsulas delivers with masterful acting prowess that he still finds the thought appealing, but he’s not that man anymore and won’t act on it.  He’s a religious figure now!   To further that continuity, Garibaldi shares with Lise that the last time he ate at the Fresh Air restaurant was celebrating the engagement of Jeffrey Sinclair to Catherine Sakai.  That was the same day that President Clark was murdered and Michael was shot in the back.  He wakes to find Jeff has been reassigned.  That was the end of Season One.  To build on the effects, he says now Jeff is gone and Catherine has disappeared.  Even Susan is gone.  Again, we are seeing just how much has changed in the B5 universe in 5 short years.   And just adding one more moment of change, Vir says Londo can go gambling if he wants, since he has a “day off”.  Londo realizes gambling no longer holds any appeal.  When I started watching B5 all those years ago, Londo was the comedic joke wandering about the casinos.  Now, he’s burdened by the weight of becoming emperor on the eve of war.  This show created a living universe, and this episode really brings that fact to light.

There are other real world concerns depicted through this episode.  Lise took over a business and finds some uncomfortable things there.  What they are, we’ve yet to find out.  She also learns that Michael has been hitting the bottle again.  She knows he has no control over it no matter how much of an argument he puts up.  (Note: he really can’t go the whole time without alcohol; a depressingly real trait for people struggling with alcoholism!)   Lyta’s business propositions still rely on business contracts and people won’t do business without insurance.  And John and Delenn don’t live in some idyllic marital bliss; they argue.  John works up “a good mad” all day to be angry with his wife, and she diffuses the situation by agreeing that he is right to be mad.  This show has always had a level of consistency that I thought was exceptional.  I can’t help but think: Star Trek offered us a utopian vision of tomorrow and it’s wonderful… but I question the possibility of it.  Will that really happen in 200 years?  The world of B5 feels much more real. 

If I have a complaint, it’s a small one.  G’Kar offers Lyta her deal if she will break a principle and spy on the other ambassadors.  She turns down the offer knowing it will destroy her chances at getting the money and ships she needs.  It’s wonderful because you feel the triumph for her and the happiness it created in G’Kar.  But… can it be trusted?  Surely, Lyta could have scanned G’Kar to see what he was looking for?  Still, it’s a minor quibble, and there’s a chance it was on the “up and up”.  I suspect G’Kar would not be so easily fooled.   I also think it’s nasty that the situation with the Centauri is not being brought to Londo considering G’Kar is fairly certain Londo knows nothing about it.  The fact that Delenn hugs Londo doesn’t offer us much, but it’s an acknowledgement that she knows he is not responsible for what’s going on.

This episode is largely prelude.  Over the next several episodes, we’ll see just how bad things get.  Because “by tomorrow morning, we will be at war with the Centauri…”  ML

The view from across the pond:

It certainly feels like we are moving towards the endgame now, with Lennier gaining the evidence he needs this week to implicate the Centauri. The manner in which he achieves that is very exciting, and makes sense of all the set-up last week to bring us to this point. The “partner vessel” thing to syphon off air and spy on the enemy was cool, and Bill Mumy’s acting when he had to witness the massacre really sold the moment. When the Brakiri captain said “we’ve got children on board” I found that quite hard to watch. Maybe I’m getting soppy in my old age, or maybe it’s just a measure of how much I have been drawn into the universe of Babylon 5, contrary to my earlier expectations.

While Lennier was off being a hero, the other big story this week was our fallen hero: Garibaldi. We start the episode very obviously within his dream, and then he wakes up to see Lyta sat on his bed with her eyes lit up, which is even creepier than the apocalyptic dream that preceded it. Then he wakes up again, and we can’t be sure if that bit was actually real or not.

“This never happened.”

I suspect it did. And that would indicate that Lyta has been driven to abandon her principles more than ever before, to achieve what she wants. That makes me suspicious about something else that happens in this episode. We pick up a conversation between Lyta and G’Kar from the pilot episode, believe it or not, and just about the only bit I remember now from that sorry mess. This time the deal is done for Lyta to give G’Kar the DNA he needs to give the Narn telepathic abilities, but not before G’Kar tests her, making sure that she is still principled enough to refuse to listen in to the thoughts of the other delegates. She passes his test, and yet I think he overlooks something: if she has abandoned those principles she could already be reading his thoughts, and will know the right way to answer that question.

As for Garibaldi, we get little more than a reinforcement of his alcoholism problem this week, and an illustration that he is not in control despite claiming to be, if we needed any further confirmation. That illustration came in the form of an encounter in a restaurant that put me in mind of a very similar storyline back in the third season, when Franklin was struggling with his own addiction. As a recap, allow me the indulgence of quoting something from my review of A Day in the Strife:

Addiction stories in drama always follow a pretty standard pattern, and you always get a moment where the addict’s behaviour crosses the line and gets noticed. This is the moment where other characters are supposed to realise that the addict has a problem, and the addict’s behaviour reaches a tipping point, often motivating him or her to seek help. So we get one of those, when Franklin shoots his mouth off at the scientist woman who is supposed to be putting together the medical answers for the probe. And that clearly doesn’t function in the way that it is supposed to.

“Doctor Franklin, are you alright?”

Um… yes, he is. What, she thinks his behaviour is unreasonable, towards a woman who doesn’t want to inconvenience somebody on holiday to save a quarter of a million people? This is clearly intended to demonstrate his addiction, and yet it collapses in that endeavour by his behaviour being entirely reasonable in the circumstances.

And here we are again, with JMS making almost exactly the same mistake for a second time, because we get a parallel scene in this episode, with Garibaldi getting angry with a waiter:

“Why don’t you just get me a damn cup of coffee?”

Just with Franklin’s loss of control in A Day in the Strife, Garibaldi’s in the right though. The waiter is a stuck up, pompous jerk, who clearly thinks he is better than his customer and does nothing to hide his arrogance. Once again, a scene that is supposed to illustrate an addict behaving out of character instead just shows a man getting justifiably annoyed with an imbecile. But this time around things are better, because we get a follow up. Garibaldi takes his coffee back, at which point I was willing him to throw it all over the waiter, but instead he made it an Irish coffee. And there we have it: an addict who can’t help himself. That’s a problem, because the Alliance is going to need him “like we’ve never needed you before.” The pieces are falling nicely into place now, with previously disparate plot strands starting to come together. Unfortunately, I just can’t shake the nagging feeling that those pieces are only being assembled because our heroes have taken leave of their senses, acting completely out of character.

“No-one really trusts anyone Vir. It is the natural order of things.”

That nifty little link between the different plot strands raises the problem I am having with this whole thing. Why does no-one trust anyone? Delenn doesn’t confide in Sheridan about Lennier. Sheridan finds out and then sneaks around in the shadows instead of confronting her straight away. And nobody confides in Londo, the one man on the whole station who could stop a war, if only he weren’t being kept in the dark by his allies and friends. He needs honesty, not a hug. All that, and for what reason? Apparently because nobody is capable of opening their minds to any possibility other than the most prosaic, linear solution. Centauri vessels don’t have to mean Centauri crews, and they certainly don’t have to mean Centauri crews acting under their own authority or with the blessing of their government. On such flawed assumptions conflicts are born.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Babylon 5, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Babylon 5: Darkness Ascending

  1. scifimike70 says:

    When you have both a title like Darkness Ascending and a major shift in storytelling for an episode just nearing the end of the series, you can easily sense that the powers that be are intended a great finale for us. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ShiraDest says:

    I think you expressed interest, Roger, in my rewatch posts: they have begun, with as little spoilage as possible, for some of my readers who have not yet seen the series.
    -Shira

    Liked by 1 person

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      Forgive a silly question Shira – where do you post? I would love to read that. You said for your readers and I realize I never bookmarked your site!
      Looking forward to the reviews. Are you watching on HBO Max? They’ve just remastered them, I learned only a week or so ago. I will be rewatching from there myself, to do my write up for the last half dozen or so! ML

      Liked by 2 people

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