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Alike in Dignity- by deadspeaker

A Brief Response to WQ

Some time ago, wrong_questions posted a thought-provoking, critical review of Babylon 5. The entry itself seems to have disappeared (ETA: until ruuger provided me with the wayward link), but I did announce at the time that I intended to publicly disagree (in a civil manner, of course). And so:

Now that I'm nearly at the end of the show's four-season run* I find myself having to rethink my assessment of it. Up until now, I've always thought of B5 as a better-than-average show with a poor first season, an execrable fifth season, and three deeply flawed yet ultimately successful middle seasons.

This is a common enough perspective on the five year run of B5 – that much of the first year can be skipped, and that, moreover, the show would’ve been better off if it had ended after year four. But whenever anyone – even someone as intelligent as WQ – minimizes the importance of the bookend years, flawed and uneven though they were, she (for the duration of this post, I’m going to use “she” for convenience’s sake) announces to me that she is about to miss some critical points.



The overblown dialogue, the broad humor, the melodramatic plots, the frequent monologues and speeches, and just in general the show's palpable sense of its own profundity must have been irresistible to the teenage set--

No B5 fan I know has ever claimed that JMS doesn’t have a weakness for expository speeches, or that he’s a comic genius. On the other hand, the theatricality of the show’s dialogue is not an illegitimate form of storytelling and not wholly without precedent. This complaint here leads me to wonder whether WQ also hates the opera or musical theater, for surely the concept of a cast of characters singing through their lives in a stylized manner must offend her militant sense of realism.

B5 is a space opera. I don’t think anyone’s denying that.

Who but a teenager, after all, could watch an EarthGov representative, who has just negotiated a non-aggression treaty with the patently evil Centauri,

Okay, pause the tape.

Surely WQ meant to say “the patently evil Centauri government”, right? Surely she doesn’t mean to implicate an entire race based on the actions of a few of its high-born representatives, particularly when that race organizes its society along rigidly hierarchical lines and essentially denies a political voice to the majority of its empire’s citizens. Right?

It’s a small nitpick, but I feel it’s indicative of one of WQ’s major misunderstandings, which will be discussed shortly.

Now, continue tape.

blissfully announce that "we will finally have peace in our time" without rolling their eyes? Who else would put up with entire paragraphs from 1984 being turned into dialogue for Night Watch representatives?

Yes, JMS’s allegories are pretty bluntly – and sometimes clumsily - drawn, and that is a weakness in the writing. On the other hand, JMS is not the only writer who is guilty of this. I can select a number of Trek episodes that are equally obvious.

WQ then quotes another reviewer who essentially complains about the plot-driven nature of the show as a whole, which, as WQ later goes on to elaborate, occasionally sacrifices character on the alter of The Arc, a critique that I’m willing to concede contains some measure of truth. The failure on the part of the heroes to financially and emotionally support their ally, Lyta Alexander, thus driving her to the Psi Corps and, ultimately, to Byron, is one example of a character choice that seems, to me, to be driven more by the plot than by the logics of character. Fandom has since wanked the reasons for this development, as it has wanked the reasons for Lennier’s fall, but the filmed canon itself does sell both of these stories drastically short. Indeed, sometimes I do wonder whether my love of B5 is due in large part to fandom, which has massaged the characters of filmed canon into intelligible wholes.

WQ writes:

Take "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum", one of the most important episodes in the second season—



Sheridan's choice to release Morden is a pivotal moment for the character--by doing so, he is committing himself to the fight against the Shadows and making the first of many painful sacrifices to that cause. It's a decision reached with the help of a history lesson: as Sheridan tells Zack, during WWII Churchill chose not to evacuate a city he knew was about to be bombed by the Germans in order not to reveal that the Allies had cracked the German codes. If we're to believe Straczynski, Sheridan's situation parallels Churchill's--both men were forced to make a painful sacrifice in order to ensure the greater good. But, of course, the two situations aren't even remotely comparable. Churchill was forced to choose between the certain death of thousands of his citizens if he didn't order the evacuation and the possible subjugation of his entire country if the Germans changed their codes and the Allies lost the war. Sheridan is forced to choose between personal vengeance and the fate of the entire galaxy. Neither decision is easy, but only Sheridan's has an obvious right choice. In other words, Sheridan makes one of the most important choices of his life because he's a bad historian, and the fact that Straczynski expects us not to notice this--the fact that he seems not to have noticed it himself--indicates a sloppiness in his writing that tracks with Eden's view of him as a big picture man who can't, or won't, erect a proper foundation for the towers in his mind.


WQ is right here. In fact, it occurs to me that if JMS wanted to use the Churchill parallel, there is a far more appropriate canonical event for which this historical connection can be made: the bombing of Narn. As Delenn reveals to G’Kar in the third season, it was known long before the Centauri bombardment that the Shadows had a connection in the Centauri government. But if Delenn and the others had acted on this intelligence, they would’ve played their hand too early and the Shadows might’ve won the war.

WQ continues:

Or take Londo Molari,

Mollari. Mollari.

one of the most important characters on the show. According to Straczynski, Londo is a tragic figure--motivated by the desire to see his people regain their place as a major galactic power, Londo gives the Shadows a foothold on his planet and in its government, and soon finds himself in over his head as they begin setting up his species for a massive fall. And I'm sorry, but that's not what's showing up on screen. The Londo we see is a horrible person, who knowingly does horrible things for reasons which are, OK, vaguely honorable**

** Inasmuch as "the Narns have offended my sense of racial pride and therefore they should be subjugated, oppressed, killed off by the thousands, humiliated, and generally made to suffer" can be considered an honorable motive.


And this is where WQ’s dismissal of the first season rears its head. Londo doesn’t just decide one day that he can’t suffer the Narns to live simply because of their existence as a now free people. There is a context - a context with which everyone should be familiar. In brief, the Narns in the first season are an objective threat to the Centauri.

In Midnight on the Firing Line, the Narns seize a civilian colony by military force, an event that everyone present considers a poorly justified act of aggression, including G’Kar himself, who feels compelled to hide his knowledge of the specifics of the attack because he knows no one will support him, age-old claims to the territory notwithstanding. Delenn acknowledges the Narn’s claim to Ragesh III, but, crucially, she also understands the complexities on the ground that exist in the aftermath of a colonial occupation and peace treaty and, I believe, refuses to support the Narn military’s action on those grounds.

And what does the Centauri government do in response to the attack on one of their outlying colonies? They decide that one little colony on the edge of their empire isn’t worth the bother of rounding up the military and inflaming the conflict with their formal colonial holding. If I were Centauri, I myself would consider this a betrayal. Is it not a government’s duty to protect its citizens from attack?

Ragesh III sets up the pattern for the entire season – one of repeated demands for “breathing room” (sound familiar?) from the Narn and repeated retreats by Turhan’s government, with each retreat further inflaming the Narn ambition for vengeance and, in G’Kar’s case at least, genocide. G’Kar isn’t kidding about those bone flutes, and it’s very likely he isn’t alone.

None of the above is intended to deny that the Centauri brought this aggression upon themselves by subjugating the Narn for a century in the first place. But how would you expect a fiercely - and, in some ways, blindly - patriotic Centauri to respond to his government’s seeming disregard for the welfare of his own people, illustrated especially by the abandonment of Ragesh III?

In this case, JMS has in fact set up an honorable motive for Londo – namely, the desire to protect his own people – and that motive remains throughout the run of the show. Here, JMS’s characterization is consistent.

but still not a sufficient excuse

I don’t think JMS intends to excuse Londo. He says repeatedly in his commentary that Londo brought his ultimate fate upon himself.

and his exploitation by the Shadows can only be explained by his having the political instincts of a stunned wombat, which is plainly not the case.

Wrong again. In reality, Londo is only fooled by the Shadows twice – in the first season, and with the death of Adira, and these can be plausibly explained by lack of knowledge and extreme emotional upset respectively. The rest of the time, he knows exactly what calling upon the Shadows’ help means, and in fact, as minions go, he is a pretty poor one, telling Morden to bugger off in the third season, actively frustrating the Shadows’ attempts to engender total war by insisting Centauri Prime be protected above all else, and utterly refusing to allow the Shadows to install a base at the heart of the empire. No, most of the time, Londo’s political instincts remain in tact.

Londo is a mass of contradictions--one moment he's cringing at the bombardment of the Narn homeworld, and the next he's congratulating Vir for personally orchestrating the deaths of thousands of Narns (in reality, Vir has smuggled the Narns to safety, a grave disappointment to Londo)--which in the real world would suggest not a complicated personality but a sociopathic one,

Or, perhaps, a personality that is more comfortable with the abstraction than the brutal reality, not to mention a personality that divides public from private.

Because J. Michael Straczynski is not only a talentless hack, he's a talentless hack who truly believes himself to be God's gift to the writing profession (go read some of his comments on The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5--just pick an episode at random. I dare you not to come away from them feeling that Straczynski has an ego the size of China).

Sure – JMS has an ego. He also kept up a running dialogue with the fans before podcasts were invented, and for that, I must give him credit.

He failed as a director--apart from the CGI battles, B5 had a static, lifeless look. It's probably not fair to blame him for the show's paltry effects budget and for working at the very forefront of CGI (although some of the Vorlon ships look like they belong in a screen-saver), but he certainly failed to make Babylon 5 look like a real place--inside and out, it was textureless.

I find it very difficult to declare the show that brings us the sartorial genius of the Centauri - or the crowded Zocalo and alien sectors -“textureless.” I shall have to chalk this up to personal taste – and also remind WQ that it wasn’t only the effects budget that was limited. That limited budget paid for everything, including the interiors WQ derides.

And then, after all of this criticism – after she declares that B5 – and JMS – was a failure - WQ admits that she is still drawn to the show. Strange, that a failure of such magnitude could have such emotional resonance.



ETA: And for the benefit of a certain friend of mine - I haven't forgotten Angel. This particular post has just been on my hard drive for awhile. *g*
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Comments

Very well written. That's always a pleasure to read those who critisize critics.
Concerning B5 I could never understand why most people do not like first and fifth seasons, imho, the first season is a very intriguing beginning for a show, unlike many other shows the very first episode got me hooked. And I always liked the fifth season it's a very plausible anticlimax for both the Shadow war and war with Earth, and then it has lots of Lyta and I like Lyta.
I am of course speaking with the benefit of hindsight, but first season is riddled with beautiful and subtle little details that turn out to be of vital importance later - and these are not just Londo's details, though Londo's arc is the first thing that pops to my mind when I am compelled to defend B5's freshman year.

As for the fifth season, I can find plenty of things to criticize, but when push comes to shove and I sit down to watch The Fall of Centauri Prime yet again, ALL IS FORGIVEN.

Можно я по-русски?

Я люблю первый сезон В5 и считаю его очень удачным. И я скажу, почему люди не любят пятый. Потому что он слишком правдив. Он показывает, что было после сказки. "Все жили долго и счастливо". Но так не бывает. Люди не хотят верить, что итоги великой войны могут быть именно такими. Но это правда. Лита оказалась забытой, Гарибальди начал пить снова. И так далее.
I still think B5 was the best SciFi series ever. I took its basic message to be "In the future the toys are better but people still suck." On the basis of teaching that truth I forgive it everything else.
I took its basic message to be "In the future the toys are better but people still suck."

That should be on an icon. In other words, yes, I agree. There are no silly utopias here, which is more than I can say for a certain sci-fi behemoth of not a little cultural renown...
You can still find the review here.

And this comment would have some actual content if I wasn't so tired that I'm afraid of falling asleep while typing. I'll come back tomorrow with some thoughts the review and your criticism provoked, provided that I still remember in the morning what I wanted to say :)
Thanks for the link. I've fixed it now. *g*
that was brilliant!
Thanks! *g*
It constantly annoys me that people dismiss the first season just because they didn't like Sinclair (who I like far, far better than our cowboy captain of seasons 2 - 5. Maybe if the Box could have played him as he'd been originally written, instead of having JMS dumb him down so he could "get him"...), or just because they didn't like certain episodes (Infection comes to mind -- the episode that set up some really significant info regarding everything that happens in later episodes regarding Mars, the Shadows, and the war 1000 years ago...). Every epic needs to have a strong foundation, and that first season builds that foundation. Everything that happens later develops from things that were built in that first season. To dismiss it means you miss SO MUCH of the significance of later events. *sigh*
See me nodding in agreement about Sinclair, the epic foundation - ALL of it. Every time I sit down to watch an early episode, I love the first season even more.

Perhaps it's time for a post of Sinclair love?
Great post, very well argued.

Let me add, re, In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum, that I agree with you and WQ about the problem with the Churchill parallel (and with you on what the far better parallel would be), but think that the episode works very well indeed as a part of the hero's quest arc. This is one of the few times when Sheridan is in the wrong and the audience is supposed to think that he's wrong for the majority of the episode. His reasons are understandable, but his behavior still is wrong, and I love that JMS doesn't make this point via letting Sheridan arrest a nice innocent character like Brother Theo but Morden, whom we know to be shady and up to no good indeed.

The wrongness of arrests without charge and indefinite imprisonment without access to any kind of justice system is a good point to make.

Londo: WQ also ignores that a great deal happens between Londo, say, being horrified at the death of the Narn who die at the Narn Outpost in Chrysalis and Londo being callous about the deaths of thousands in late season 3. You can see him hardening. Not beyond recall, which is why when presented with the results up and close as during the mass driver bombardment or later with G'Kar in season 4 he reacts accordingly, but otherwise? One wonders whether WQ has ever read or watched Macbeth and complained that the guy makes such a fuss about killing Duncan and then goes on to kill MacDuff's kids and hence is such an inconstant character...
His reasons are understandable, but his behavior still is wrong, and I love that JMS doesn't make this point via letting Sheridan arrest a nice innocent character like Brother Theo but Morden, whom we know to be shady and up to no good indeed.

Additionally, JMS allows pro-death penalty Garibaldi to be the opposition, which flies in the face of many viewers' expectations.

Londo:

One wonders whether WQ has ever read or watched Macbeth and complained that the guy makes such a fuss about killing Duncan and then goes on to kill MacDuff's kids and hence is such an inconstant character...

Weren't you going to write that essay at one point? *g*




Additionally, JMS allows pro-death penalty Garibaldi to be the opposition, which flies in the face of many viewers' expectations

Yes, exactly. It contributes to make Garibaldi such a real character, instead of a "right-win cop" cliché. The cliché would have been to let Sheridan be the voice of moderation and civil liberty, but no, it's Garibaldi, which, woo, hoo!

Essay: I just signed about two hundred books and wrote two Angel essays, so I'm fresh out of élan for now...
I just signed about two hundred books and wrote two Angel essays, so I'm fresh out of élan for now...

*hugs you*

Then perhaps I should take up that responsibility. It seems like one good way to respond to WQ's thoughtful reply below.

(Anonymous)

Hello, hobsonphile, and thank you for your thoughtful and friendly response to my essay. I'm going to try to address your points here, some of which have already been raised in the comment thread on the original post, making me wonder if, in some cases, I haven't been as clear as I might be. (This comment has turned out to be absurdly long and so I'm dividing it into several comments. Apologies)

for the duration of this post, I’m going to use “she” for convenience’s sake

Well, that was a good guess :-)

No B5 fan I know has ever claimed that JMS doesn’t have a weakness for expository speeches, or that he’s a comic genius. On the other hand, the theatricality of the show’s dialogue is not an illegitimate form of storytelling and not wholly without precedent. This complaint here leads me to wonder whether WQ also hates the opera or musical theater, for surely the concept of a cast of characters singing through their lives in a stylized manner must offend her militant sense of realism.

Not opera, but I've enjoyed a musical or two. I don't really have a problem with melodramatic, operatic fiction in principle - I'm trying to think of examples and I can only come up with some parts of Farscape and Buffy and, of course, The Lord of the Rings, books and movies - if it's done well. Which is the crux of my entire article. Straczynski had remarkable, pie-in-the-sky ideas about what he wanted his show to be, how he wanted it to look and sound, and if Babylon 5 had really been the embodiment of those dreams, it would really have been something to see. My contention (which I more or less stole from reviewer Nick Eden, from whose erudite and interesting article (http://www.pheasnt.demon.co.uk/Pheasant/Babylon5.html), well worth reading in its entirety, I quote in my essay) is that Straczynski lacked the talent to make his grand ideas come alive, and what we see on screen is something half-baked and incomplete.

Surely WQ meant to say “the patently evil Centauri government”, right?

Yes, that's closer to the mark. You're right that I should have been more precise.

Your well-made point about the Centauri's justified grievance against the Narn in the first season is a little too long to quote. I wasn't trying to ignore this piece of history - I did refer to it, if rather obliquely, when I said that the Narns had offended Londo's racial pride

That said, I'm no stranger to decades-long disputes fueled, not by a desire for land or a difference of religion, but simply by hate. I know what it's like when they strike at us, and you feel a rage that can't be described. And I know what it's like when we strike back at them, and you know in the pit of your stomach that nothing has been settled and the whole thing will now start over again. And I know people who say 'we should carpet bomb them and that will be the end of the problem', and really mean it. First season G'Kar is one of those people. First season Londo is not.

You know, it's interesting, but when I talk about Londo with a bit of distance from the show (I finished watching the fourth season three weeks ago) I can actually see the character everyone raves about - the complicated, conflicted man who did terrible things out of a desire to do good and a justified sense of grievance. I can see, in other words, Straczynski's concept of the character. I did see this character when I watched B5 for the first time at 15, and it was with a terrible shock that I discovered that he was nowhere to be found when I watched the show as a more discerning adult.

(Anonymous)

(cont)

As I explained to one of the commenters on my blog, Londo isn't a grey character, but a character who constantly and frenetically switches between black and white. This week he's evil, next week he's good. This week we should hate him, next week we should pity him. The result of this schizophrenic characterization, as far as I was concerned, was that the writers' attempts to redeem Londo, to convince me that there was still some good in him, fell flat. It came to the point where my heartfelt, venomous reaction to Londo's grief at Adira's death was 'good, you murderous bastard. You deserve all the pain you're feeling right now and the only people I feel sorry for are that poor, innocent girl and the millions of people who are going to die because of what you'll do next'. This, to put it mildly, is not how I was supposed to respond. The magic of a tragic, conflicted character is that we love and hate him at the same time - it's what makes Logan on Veronica Mars, third season Crais on Farscape, Connor on Angel, and Mal Reynolds on Firefly such remarkable creations. Londo fails to achieve that complexity and, once again, the problem is that Straczynski's ambitions outstrip his talent as a writer.

In reality, Londo is only fooled by the Shadows twice – in the first season, and with the death of Adira, and these can be plausibly explained by lack of knowledge and extreme emotional upset respectively. The rest of the time, he knows exactly what calling upon the Shadows’ help means, and in fact, as minions go, he is a pretty poor one, telling Morden to bugger off in the third season, actively frustrating the Shadows’ attempts to engender total war by insisting Centauri Prime be protected above all else, and utterly refusing to allow the Shadows to install a base at the heart of the empire. No, most of the time, Londo’s political instincts remain in tact.

I had this discussion with a commenter on my blog and I think you miss my point. Here's what I wrote:

That Londo and the Centauri political apparatus were willing to ally themselves with the Shadows is eminently believable. My problem is the way they did this. Londo is supposedly a seasoned political operative, the veteran of a lifetime spent playing political back-scratching games and hoarding favors. You should be able to give him a lobotomy and he'd still tell you that no one does anything for free, and that the longer the price for a given favor remains unspoken, the higher it is likely to be.

And yet, when Morden shows up, makes Londo's fondest wish come true, refuses all offers of compensation and disappears into the ether, Londo doesn't even pause to wonder if getting involved with him might come back to bite him in the ass. A four year old should have been able to see the situation for what it was. Vir had it worked out within months!

If we'd seen Londo make a conscious decision to accept Morden's help regardless of the consequences, it would be another matter, but he seems to be genuinely surprised when he discovers that Morden's motives weren't altruistic, and that Londo doesn't fully control him. It takes him an unconscionably long time to start wondering if maybe, these unstoppable killing machines might one day turn their gaze to the Centauri republic itself, and even then he seems to the lone voice of reason in a cabinet of fools.

And again, if Londo had been portrayed as a fool, I wouldn't have a problem with this. It's the fact that we're supposed to swallow this foolish behavior and also accept that Londo is quite clever that gets to me.


I don't believe the text supports your claim that Londo knows there will be a price for dealing with the Shadows - certainly not when he first begins dealing with Morden.

Or, perhaps, a personality that is more comfortable with the abstraction than the brutal reality, not to mention a personality that divides public from private.

That's a nice observation, but it doesn't make "Sic Transit Vir" any easier to watch. There's something indecent about the joy in Londo's face and voice when he hears about the dead Narns. It's almost impossible to endure.

(Anonymous)

I find it very difficult to declare the show that brings us the sartorial genius of the Centauri - or the crowded Zocalo and alien sectors -“textureless.” I shall have to chalk this up to personal taste – and also remind WQ that it wasn’t only the effects budget that was limited. That limited budget paid for everything, including the interiors WQ derides.

We're going to have to agree to disagree about the Centauri outfits which, as a whole, I found rather phony-looking, but I'll grant you that the show was working with a tiny budget and that it's not entirely fair to blame the props department for not working magic with it.

And then, after all of this criticism – after she declares that B5 – and JMS – was a failure - WQ admits that she is still drawn to the show. Strange, that a failure of such magnitude could have such emotional resonance.

My guess? It's a glimpse of Straczynski's original idea, that platonic ideal of Babylon 5 that he had neither the talent nor the means to bring to life. It's there, very well hidden, and I can't help but respond to it.

You might be interested, by the way, in this post (http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/2005/11/babylon-5-addenda.html), in which I discuss some further reactions to the show, and specifically the end of the fourth season.

g_shadowslayer wrote:

It constantly annoys me that people dismiss the first season just because they didn't like Sinclair (who I like far, far better than our cowboy captain of seasons 2 - 5. Maybe if the Box could have played him as he'd been originally written, instead of having JMS dumb him down so he could "get him"...), or just because they didn't like certain episodes (Infection comes to mind -- the episode that set up some really significant info regarding everything that happens in later episodes regarding Mars, the Shadows, and the war 1000 years ago...). Every epic needs to have a strong foundation, and that first season builds that foundation. Everything that happens later develops from things that were built in that first season. To dismiss it means you miss SO MUCH of the significance of later events. *sigh*

Although I didn't like Sinclair (and it continues to baffle me that he and Michael O'Hare have developed such a following among B5 fans), he's not the reason why I didn't like the first season. I accept that the first season lays the foundation for the B5 story, but that doesn't change the fact that it isn't good television. You mention "Infection", which is a very good example. There is indeed an important plot point that is important (although hardly critical, and not something that couldn't have been introduced at some other point and in some other way) to the story in "Messages From Earth", but the episode sucks. As far as I'm concerned, 'I'm laying the foundation' is not a good enough excuse for asking your audience to sit through sub-par material.

Again, thank you for this thoughtful response.

Abigail Nussbaum