When Babylon 5 is good, it can be really good. When Babylon 5 decides to bring in Lovecraftian nightmares, well… Thirdspace had a lot of potential. As you might expect from JMS, we have some amazing concepts presented to us. That’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But the execution is extremely slow. If we ever took a “Top of the Docs” approach to B5, the individual episodes would be tough to place but the movies would be far easier. This one doesn’t do so well in my book even though I’m a huge fan of the idea.
First of all, let’s discuss the same thing we started with last time: when do you watch this one? In the Beginning was a strange one to place and full of major spoilers if watched out of order. This one can be watched almost anywhere without impacting plot points. We see Deuce from season one’s Grail which could put it early in the series, but Sheridan is here and Sinclair is gone which suggests no sooner than season 2. Also, and very noticeably, the Army of Light uniform places this sometime after the midpoint of the series meaning no sooner than middle of season 3. Then this is also around the time of the embargo and after the Shadow war, but before the war with Earth, so we’re looking at something after season 4’s Into the Fire. Add to that, Zack was unwilling to change his clothes for a while, so it probably puts it later than that. But does any of that really matter in terms of story arc? Not really. Season 4 seems to be where it’s at for the movies though!
The story features something that affects the dreamers at first before infecting everyone. Ivanova has some latent telepathic abilities and perhaps Vir does as well. They are both victims of the discovery in hyperspace; a vast, ancient device that needs to be activated. Once active, there are tentacled monsters in dreams, glowing green glyphs, and ships that vaguely remind me of the creatures described in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. The whole story is positively dripping with Lovecraft’s influence. Anti-life, they call it. I mean, come on! The notion of a million year old door that opens both ways letting something into our world is very From Beyond.
Speaking of the alien artefact, I will point out that the dream sequence was significant too. Susan asks Vir what the thing is and he says “you shouldn’t ask questions like that”. He’s “rewarded” by women groping him and pulling him away (Vir is very happy the next day, so I presume he had fun!) Susan, who is less accepting, is killed in the dream. Still, while Vir seemed accepting of the creature, I don’t think he deserved a beating. Possibly the funniest line is not one that should be funny at all, and thus ends up working well. When the situation is resolved and everyone is returned to normal, Vir emphatically asks “What are you doing? … Why are you hitting me?”
That is one of the problems with the episode: the mix of fun it tries to add at awkward times. Ivanova wanting to kill the work crew is funny, but incongruous. The scene with Zack telling Lyta how he feels is less funny and comes off as painfully awkward. Zack has been written as a bit airy in some ways, but surprisingly astute in others. (He is the new head of security, after all.) Yet somehow he can’t see that something is wrong with Lyta?? (I admit I thought she looked very attractive in the elevator scene but I could also tell she wasn’t herself!) Then there’s Dr. Trent of IPX. She’s cocky in all the worst ways. Her awareness of what Lyta did is surprising, implying IPX is way more informed than they should be. But when she tries to explain to her colleague that she believes this thing from “thirdspace” could allow instantaneous travel anywhere in the universe… what was she basing it on? And worse, why did her pal believe her. (Guys, listen, I just found a pen in my backyard that I think can teleport me to England if I wave it three times under a full moon. Yeah… believe that!) Maybe I had indigestion and missed the explanation, but it was totally unfounded by my reckoning and yet the scientist seems to accept it. Then, after she is freed from the alien influence at the end of the movie, she is given an unprecedented amount of leeway from Captain Sheridan. Now, yes, technically she was under alien influence, but she did murder her friend and colleague. Surely that warrants more than a “we won’t tell anyone; you’ve suffered enough!” At the very least, shouldn’t she be in trouble for hitting a member of the military (Susan)?
Then again, Lovecraft’s monsters do get in your head and maybe Sheridan is being justifiably fair after all. And the alien city was strangely alluring and one wonders what stories are yet to be told. Lyta says the Vorlons opened this doorway because they thought of themselves as gods and they would tap into the Well of Souls. Let’s just say, mistakes were made! They left Lyta with a memory of the device as a warning of one of so many mistakes. This leads me to wonder, how many stories could we have done with a spinoff series: The Mistakes of the Vorlons. I can’t wait for it to premiere, even if it is only in my head.
Like I said, conceptually a good story. In execution, somewhat lackluster. That’s very disappointing to type that because I really want to like this one. Maybe there’s something we could do to make it better. But what? “You shouldn’t ask questions like that.” …. I said “you shouldn’t ask questions like that!” (Damn… it was worth a try!) ML
The view from across the pond:
Babylon 5 is still feeding off its own past with the movies. This one was broadcast during the fifth season but was set about halfway through the fourth. Although this is better than the prequel, which merely showed us a story we had been already told about piecemeal, there is still a lack of jeopardy because we know that there cannot be any genuine risk to the station or the main characters. The status quo has to remain in place at the end of the episode. That’s one reason I prefer writers to move stories on, instead of setting things within their own previous continuity.
A bigger problem with this is that it’s the third feature length B5 television movie, if you count the pilot episode, and JMS is displaying a disappointing inability to structure a story over a longer running time. This makes three failures out of three. His approach seems to be to take a story that would have fitted quite comfortable into a 45 minute episode, and then stretch it. Worse still, he stretches the wrong bit of the story. I can’t tell you how much of a struggle it was to stay awake through the first hour of this. It was like that scene in Mr Bean’s Holiday, where he’s trying to prop his eyes open. That’s because the plot of the first hour is as follows:
A mysterious object is discovered. Some dodgy investigators come and have a look at it. People start behaving oddly.
That’s basically it. I admit that I’m simplifying things, but that’s because everything I have cut out of that summary is extraneous window dressing, of no relevance to what happens in the last half hour. The first hour could easily have been compressed to fifteen minutes, to make a corker of a regular episode of B5, but instead it all drags on interminably. The only thing that grabbed my attention was Zack plucking up the courage to ask Lyta on a date (again, we know it’s not going to happen because we have that big reset button waiting for us at the end), which was a sad moment to watch because he’s a nice guy and deserves better. Also, thank God for Lyta being in this, because she was the only person who really brought the first hour of the episode to life, with her mental breakdown.
My herculean efforts at staying awake were rewarded by a fabulous final half hour. It was CGI-heavy, but really good CGI for the time. Apparently about a third of the overall running time of the episode was made up of CGI sequences, so you can’t fault the ambition. It’s just that the other two thirds were boring and far too talky. I loved the artifact, and also the monsters that Sheridan encountered inside it. I couldn’t even begin to describe them, other than “creepy”. There were lots of good ideas packed into this episode: the third dimension, set apart from normal space and hyperspace; the obvious revelation that people would want to use it as a weapon; the Vorlons’ mistake of “pride”; the idea that they were explicitly trying to become gods by entering the dimension of “souls”; the two-way door that has to be opened from both sides. These are all the products of JMS’s astonishingly creative mind, but that’s what makes him such a frustrating writer. Having watched all five seasons of Babylon 5 now, I can see why it achieved such a dedicated fanbase, because JMS is brilliant at coming up with exciting concepts. As a writer he thinks big. But the other thing that became apparent as I worked my way through the 100+ episodes, is that he just doesn’t understand how to structure a season. Here, in movie format, are the positives and negatives of JMS’s abilities in microcosm: big exciting ideas, terribly structured.
The next movie finally takes us post-Season 5 in both the setting and the broadcast date. Let’s see what happens when the story starts moving forward once more… RP
When a successful SF series ends, leaving enough of its life on TV left for a few movies, it can say a lot about how flexible the ideas can be when Lovecraftian influences are permitted. Thinking big, even with mixed responses, as Star Trek’s Discovery and Picard, or Jodie’s Dr. Who era, is what the Babylon 5 universe could most uniquely benefit from. The structures for TV seasons may not have the best attention as a consequence of all the focus on the ambitious ideas. The post-series movies, either prequels or sequels, can make some amends for that I suppose.
Thank you both for your reviews.
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