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Friday, 28 October 2016

Babylon 5 1-13: Signs and Portents

Episode:13|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:18-May-1994

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, I've reached a important milestone in my epic Babylon 5 rewatch: the start of disc four! There's only two discs left after this in my season one box set and then I'm through with it.

Speaking of the box set, there's some interesting (and relevant) text at the bottom of the cover. You see every season of Babylon 5 has its own overall title, named after an especially important and game changing episode from that year, and the title printed on season one's box is...  


It's been a long while since I've seen this though so I'll try to keep my hype down to boring levels. It'd better be good though. It'd better be really good, or else I'm... throwing disc four out the window. In fact I've just checked what other episodes are on it and that's starting to seem like a good idea either way. Grail and TKO on the same disc? Damn.

The DVD also features a commentary for this episode by writer JMS and if you haven't seen the entire series before I'd recommend staying way clear of it until you have. They forgot to mention on the box that it's filled with spoilers for later episodes.

Speaking of SPOILERS, I'm going to be going through the episode scene by scene, so turn back now if you haven't seen it yet and care about such things. I'll also be spoiling some earlier episodes, but later episodes are strictly off limits.



The episode begins with Lt. Commander Ivanova suffering the daily nightmare of waking up. She is not a morning person, especially when it's dark outside. Sinclair pointlessly points out that it's always dark in space, but she really doesn't need the reminder.

Suddenly there's a call from Starfury escorting a Centauri freighter, reporting that they're under attack by Raiders! They're those pirates in the triangle ships who were buying weapons from the Narn way back in Midnight on the Firing Line. They also had a blink-and-you'll-miss-it subplot in Believers, just to remind viewers they exist I guess.

The Starfury blows up and that’s the end of the teaser. Not exactly the best hook they've had so far.

Though it's really weird seeing a Raider actually take out a Starfury, as it's usually them doing all the exploding. Either way they go up in a shower of sparks though, as Foundation Imaging hadn't found a way to do good CGI explosions yet. They'll get there though.


ACT ONE.


Morden walking through the docking bay
We're rewarded for waiting through the opening credits with a nice shot of the docking bay, looking a fair bit more 3D rendered than the last time we got a good look at the place, at the end of And the Sky Full of Stars. Though our attention is meant to be on the single passenger walking out into the customs area.

The mysterious stranger presents his identicard to the security officer, who's surprised that it hasn't been updated in so long. The stranger claims that he's spent the last few years doing some exploration 'out on the rim'. "Find anything interesting?" the officer asks. "Yes," replies the stranger with a grin, as he collects his card and walks away. The cheeky git.

Seems that hats at still in fashion on B5, as we've got a good selection on display back there. Funny how many people feel the need to keep their heads covered inside an air conditioned space station.

Over in Sinclair's office the command staff are discussing the Raider attacks. The station is supposed to be protecting transports, but the Raiders are getting in and out too fast for them to respond and they don't know why. Small fighters can't enter and leave hyperspace on their own, they have to use jumpgates, so there's no explanation for how they're getting around so fast. Well aside for the obvious one, but drama demands they forget that for now.

What I don't get is why the freighters and starliners keep getting caught in normal space in the first place. Surely they go into a jumpgate near their point of departure, where they're under protection from local fighters, then they're safe in hyperspace until they come out of B5's gate.

Oh by the way, it's taken me 13 episodes, but I've finally gotten a good shot of Sinclair's art on the back wall. It's the British Royal Air Force logo and a row of planes, possibly Spitfires. Plus he's thrown in a giant triangle, possibly because he subconsciously remembers being captured and scanned by the Minbari with one during the war, possibly because he just thought it looked cool.

Speaking of the time Sinclair was captured and scanned, Sinclair's finally speaking of the time he was captured and scanned to someone! He needs Garibaldi to investigate what happened to him during the 24 hours he can't remember during the Battle of the Line.

So... is he supposed to go phone up the Minbari or something? Sinclair was taken aboard one of their ships, tortured, and then had his memory erased. The only person on the station likely to know anything about what happened to him there is Delenn and they don't want her to know that he knows that something's up. But hey, best of luck to you Garibaldi.

Elsewhere in the station, Ambassador Londo Mollari has just completed a deal to acquire a priceless Centauri relic called the Eye. It was the property of the very first emperor, from the earliest days of the Republic, and it's been lost for over a hundred years. And if he's not careful he's going to drop it in this dumb argument with Ambassador G'Kar while they're all waiting for an elevator. Meanwhile humanity is caught in then middle. Well, a human... with a hat.

In the end they're both too distracted to see their lift arrive and the human leaves without them. Of course the ambassadors blame each other for this in comedic unison, as is their way.

G'Kar eventually makes it back to his quarters, where he's visited by the stranger who came in from the ship at the start. The man introduces himself as Morden and tells G'Kar that their meeting was authorised by a councillor. He's got just one question to ask, though he sure likes to repeat it: "What do you want?"

G'Kar initially gives his inquiry the response it deserves, telling him to get out. But after a moment's reflection he decides to answer him: he wants justice. Also to tear down Centauri cities, blacken their sky and salt their earth; to completely and utterly erase them.

The guy's been more sympathetic lately, but he's still a vengeful bastard.

But Morden is curious about what G'Kar wants after that, and that throws him a bit. It seems like he's never thought that far ahead. In The Gathering he was plotting to start a war to form an alliance with the Minbari, but that was all to get revenge on the Centauri. As long as his homeworld's secure and Narn children have a pile of Centauri bones to make flutes out of, it doesn't much matter to him what comes next. He's not out to start a Narn empire or anything.

Down in the customs area, Londo is greeting Centauri nobles Lord Kiro and his aunt Lady Ladira, who have arrived to collect the priceless Eye from him. Lady Ladira is the prophetess of their house and she's barely on screen 10 seconds before her eyes go wide and she starts getting visions. She yells out her latest prophecy for the benefit of everyone in the room:
"I see death, destruction, fire, Babylon will fall, this place will be destroyed! Fire, death, pain, fire, death, pain, no, NO!"
We already know that the Centauri believe they can see a vision of their own deaths in a dream, so I suppose it's only a small step from there to say that some of them can see it while they're awake as well. Whether she's actually legitimately able to tell the future hasn't been established though, so maybe they won't all die a fiery painful death!


ACT TWO.


The next ambassador on Morden's list is Delenn, who's currently constructing an elaborate piece of art out of Perspex triangles on her table.

Speaking of triangles... one just appeared on her forehead and that's a bit weird. Though we have seen it before, in Sinclair's flashback in And the Sky Full of Stars.

She covers her triangle and turns around to see that Morden's entirely in shadow. This is not something she wants to be dealing with right now, so she yells at him to get out and he complies without even getting to ask his question. I guess it was pretty obvious what she wanted.

"They're here," she says once he's gone, to no one in particular. It must be hard being Delenn as she seems to be in on all the good secrets, but she can never talk about them with anyone unless Lennier's making a rare appearance.

Back in the Centauri plot, Lord Kiro isn't that bothered about Ladira's vision of the station exploding as her predictions haven't been always been all that great. On his first birthday she predicted that he'd be killed by shadows and he finds that ridiculous. Doesn't seem like the kind of thing you'd want to dismiss off hand, seeing as Delenn's friend was stabbed by a 'shadow' (actually a guy in an invisibility suit) back in The War Prayer. Though I suppose he may have seen his own death in a dream like Londo and knows that she's way off the mark.

Kiro's much more interested in playing with the Eye right now. It's the symbol of his house and he's not happy about delivering it to their Emperor in secret so that they can pretend that they found it on Centauri Prime.

In fact he's thinking using the Eye to claim the throne for himself, as for the Centauri there's no greater symbol of authority, but Londo talks him out of it. Not that he wouldn't welcome a change in leadership, especially after they didn't lift a finger to save his nephew on Ragesh 3, he's just canny enough to realise that without support Kiro would end up dead within a day of trying.

Out in space somewhere, another transport suddenly begins picking up Raider transmissions and sends out a mayday. Babylon 5 gets the message and Sinclair orders Ivanova to jump in a Starfury and take a wing through the jumpgate to save them.

Uh Sinclair, your space station picture is upside down. The bar is supposed to run along the top of the spinning cylinder, that's how we know which part is the top.

Down in the Zocalo, someone who identifies himself as 'Six' radios out to inform the Raiders that B5 has taken the bait and sent out fighters, and it'll take two hours before they can reload the Cobra Bays.
"Keep them busy when they arrive, we'll take care of Babylon 5 from this end."
Uh dude, you can't seriously be thinking about blowing up Babylon 5. Where do you think all the transports you're raiding are coming to and from?


ACT THREE.


A short while later Ambassador Kosh finally returns to the station after skipping the last two episodes. Morden should be happy, as this means he's got someone else to ask his question to. Well he should be happy, but he's not, as he ducks out of sight to avoid even being seen by him.

Fortunately he ran into him in the darkest corridor on the station so he gets away with it. Did a bulb blow or something?

Morden's not quite out of ambassadors yet though, as he finds Londo while he's taking the Eye to Lord Kiro and gives him the usual question. Londo gives him the usual response, but Morden's persistence eventually wears him down and the man's frustration comes pouring out.
"I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy. I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again and command the stars. I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power. I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment, afraid to look back or to look forward. I want us to be what we used to be!"
Interesting that he didn't even mention the Narn.

I don't think we've learned anything new about Londo here, as his feelings about the Centauri Republic's decline has been obvious since his line about it becoming a tourist attraction in the pilot movie. But Morden seems to have gotten the response he was after. G'Kar's fairly happy with his life and just wants the Centauri ruined. Londo on the other hand is feeling frustrated and powerless, and desperately wants to make Centauri Prime great again.

Meanwhile in C&C... hey it's the first appearance of Corwin! Sorry, I mean 'Tech #2'. It'll be a long while before he gets his name, but he'll be showing up a lot more in the future. The distant future.

Sinclair's still waiting for Ivanova's wing to reach the transport, as it was attacked pretty far away. Which is weird really, as the other Raider attacks had been getting closer to B5. So he asks his pit of Techs to get him a cargo manifest on the ship to see if it's carrying anything special that the Raiders would go out of their way to raid.

Elsewhere on the station, Londo's brought the Eye to Kiro, but Six has shown up to intercept and murder their guards! Didn't see that coming did you Ladira?

Six somehow knows about the Eye and he wants to take it off their hands. Londo feigns ignorance, but that makes Six respond with "No more lies Ambassador!" Best not do anything to make him talk again Londo, this guy's not very well written or well acted and he could bring the whole episode down.

In fact he's even very good at killing people, as one of the guards he gunned down is back on his feet again in the next shot! Though only in the widescreen version.

See, there he is on the right, just outside of that orange box I've drawn on.

The orange box obviously isn't the fullscreen version though, as it's the wrong shape. It's actually showing the shot that he got shot during, overlaid over the next shot revealing that he's actually not been shot. Uh, you know what I mean.

I don't know how the continuity problem slipped through, but I can explain why the earlier shot is so zoomed in. The episodes were filmed with a later widescreen release in mind, but the visual effects were created for 4:3 NTSC televisions. So whenever there's gunfire on screen the DVD has a 4:3 shot edited in, with the top and bottom of the frame cropped to make it widescreen. So for a few seconds the picture suddenly gets darker, fuzzy, and the colours are slightly different; not ideal.

Anyway, Sinclair's inventory check reveals that the freighter's not actually hauling anything of value, so he calls up Ivanova and learns that she's got the Raiders on the run. He'd rather she was heading back to base though, as he knows a diversion when he sees one. He caught them pulling the same trick in Midnight on the Firing Line.

There's a Centauri ship belonging to Lord Kiro about to depart and Sinclair has a hunch that's what the Raiders will really be after.

Well he's right, but it's hard to warn a man of an attack when he's already being held hostage by the attacker. Six drags Kiro out to his ship alone, with Sinclair promising not to stop him leaving. He doesn't promise anything about not crippling his engines when he's outside though.

Ladira starts saying something about the shadows coming for Kiro, but that's about as helpful as "fire, death, pain" from earlier so Londo gets her somewhere safer.

Suddenly a jump point forms next to the station and a full Raider carrier covered in triangle fighters comes out of it! The small fighters may need to use the jumpgate network when they're on their own but a huge carrier like this can punch a hole straight into hyperspace and back out again, which explains how they've been hitting ships and getting away so fast.

I don't remember them mentioning that the largest ships can jump without a gate in other episodes, but we've seen it happen before. It's how the Narn fleet attacked Ragesh 3 in the first episode, as they came out of a jump point in sector 7-G... or whatever.


ACT FOUR.


Fortunately Sinclair had Garibaldi waiting nearby with another wing of Starfuries. They were going to pounce on the Centauri shuttle, but now they've got some other targets to shoot at. And Babylon 5 itself gets to cut loose with its defence grid for the first time too! This is what I want.

The CGI here was considered less than convincing even at the time, but I love how dynamic it is, with the camera following the fighters as they weave around. This would've been the biggest space battle in science fiction since... Return of the Jedi maybe. The Star Trek spin-offs definitely hadn't done anything that could match it by this point.

Though I remember the ships in Return of the Jedi moving a lot faster. Also I caught them sneakily using the same shot of the Starfuries approaching the station twice.

Inside the station the sirens are blaring and everyone's running to find shelter. Everyone except Ladira who's still rambling about fire, death, and destruction. She doesn't think there's any point in going anywhere though as the shadows have come for them all! But mostly Lord Kiro.

As the battle rages outside Morden comes across Kosh again, and this time he's not fast enough to duck into a hallway. "Leave this place, they are not for you," the Vorlon commands, being remarkably straightforward for once.

Up until now the Vorlons have kept out of everyone's business for the most part, apparently believing that they're above it, so the fact that Kosh seems to feel that Morden here is worth his time is... interesting.

Sinclair has Garibaldi draw the fighters close to the rear of Babylon 5 so that they have to fly along the length of the station to retreat, then calls in Ivanova's squad from the jumpgate. Boxed in between Garibaldi, Ivanova, and a station covered in guns, the Raider fighters are obliterated.

I'm not sure that's how three dimensional space works, but it sounded very tactical and looked cool so I'm happy to give Sinclair his win here. 

The Raider carrier on the other hand is able to make a run for it, with Lord Kiro's shuttle and the Eye on board.

Later, Garibaldi visits Sinclair's office to report that the station escaped with only minor damage, and limited fire, pain, destruction etc. Though Ambassador Kosh's encounter suit somehow ended up damaged during the fight and he needs some tools to fix it. Hmm...

Meanwhile on the Raider carrier, it's revealed that Kiro has been conspiring with the Raiders all along in a plot to seize the Centauri throne!

But Six turns on Lord Kiro and takes the Eye for himself! Double twist! They were never powerful enough to take on the Centauri government, but they're smart enough to sell the Eye, collect his ransom and claim regular payments from him to ensure their silence about his part in all this. Now the Raiders will be stronger than ever!

Tired of Six's acting, a huge black spider ship shimmers into existence nearby and then slices the Raider carrier in half with a pimping purple cutting beam.

The entire vessel is obliterated in seconds. Well that's the Raider plotline finished then.

Lady Ladira was apparently witnessing all of this in a vision and drops her drink in shock as Kiro dies. Londo's kind of shocked about the whole thing as well, as with the Eye missing his career is basically over and he expects to be leaving the station soon.

But Morden soon shows up with a gift for him. It's the Eye, in perfect condition (though the box is a little scorched). That ought to ensure he keeps his position as ambassador a little while longer and Morden doesn't even want anything in return. Londo's finally made a friend! A really nice friend who works with the nice spider ship that blew up the evil Raiders and saved the day.

Plus he apparently got into a fight with that cryptic bastard Kosh while the space battle was going on and walked away without a scratch, and it's nice to see the Vorlon brought down a peg after all the mean things he did to Talia in Deathwalker. Or maybe some rocks fell out of the ceiling onto his encounter suit during the confrontation and Morden took the opportunity to make a run for it, we may never know.


ACT FIVE.


But the biggest shock this episode is this shot of people actually using the bathroom in a sci-fi series.

Garibaldi couldn't find much about Sinclair's missing 24 hours during the war (huge shock), but he did discover that he wasn't first in line to command Babylon 5. Sinclair was way way down the list, below generals and admirals, but every name was rejected until they got to him. Turns out that the Minbari government was first to sign on to support Babylon 5 on the condition they had approval over who was assigned to run it, and they wanted Sinclair specifically.

Damn, no wonder the Knights were paranoid about him in And the Sky Full of Stars. The Minbari kidnapped him, secretly messed with his mind and then put him in charge of a major Earth Alliance outpost. Somehow it doesn't seem likely that they just felt a bit guilty about it all and wanted to make it up to him.

But the episode's not over yet as Sinclair has a chat with Lady Ladira before she returns to Centauri Prime. Turns out that she's not just precognitive, she's telepathic, and she has the power to broadcast a vision of the future straight into his brain.

Seems that defeating the Raiders changed nothing; Babylon 5 still on course for a fiery demise.

Ladira immediately backpedals though, saying that it's only a possible future. Kind of takes all the punch out of it really. The station's always under threat of being destroyed by enemy ships, biomechanical super soldiers, telepathic gods etc. so what does this change?

I've seen the series before, I know what's going to happen, but watching it for the first time this didn't exactly sell me on the fact that they might really blow up Babylon 5 before the end of Babylon 5. Not after they paid for all those stock CGI shots of the station.


CONCLUSION

It's such a Babylon 5 thing to have an episode featuring TV's biggest ever space battle and ends with the annihilation of their greatest recurring enemy, and call it Signs and Portents. Though this is definitely more set up than pay off, as by the end of it all we really learn is that something's going on, and Kosh and Delenn are aware of it. We do get a lot of prophecy this episode from a genuine Centauri prophet, but the trouble is that most of it is 'fire, pain, destruction, shadows, pain, fire' and a revelation the station will eventually blow up... if they get the bad ending. Perhaps. She doesn't know.

The episode introduces the mysterious Mr. Morden and his friendly neighbourhood spider ship, but it doesn't outright explain anything about them, other than that they're apparently on the Vorlons' level and they don't like space pirates. It does outright explain G'Kar and Londo though, through their answers to Morden's question. They seemed so similar at the start during their argument at the elevator that the guy in the middle might as well have been a mirror (if he wasn't already a metaphor), but by the end it's clear that there's one important difference between them: G'Kar genuinely only wants revenge but Londo wants a return to the 'good old days'... the ones that got people wanting revenge on them in the first place.

Delenn on the other hand only wants to be left alone with her Perspex so that she can build a tower and Kosh apparently wants to personally kick some ass. Morden didn't visit Sinclair at all for whatever reason, so he had to tell Garibaldi what he wants instead: answers to what Delenn is keeping from him. Whatever it is, it almost certainly involves triangles.

This may not be one of B5's absolute greatest episodes, it's still a bit too cheesy for that and it's let down by some of the music, some of the writing (fire, pain, destruction!!) and some of the acting. Well, only Six's acting really, everyone else did well with what they had, especially Ed Wasser as Sinister Rod Serling. Janet Greek's direction was solid though and this is definitely one of the best episodes of season one. It's a big step forward towards what the series will eventually become in style and content, and pretty much a must-watch for anyone who wants to watch any of B5, in my opinion.



I'll be deviating from the aired order for the next B5 episode, skipping TKO and jumping straight to Grail. Not because TKO is that bad (though it is), I'm just following the Lurker's Guide Master List episode order for enhanced continuity. But next up on Sci-Fi Adventures is Doctor Who's series 9 finale Hell Bent!

You should totally leave a comment by the way. Make your presence known and share your thoughts.

5 comments:

  1. Is TKO the one about boxing? I remember Channel 4 showed it out of sequence -- and at 11pm -- because it was deemed too violent to show during the standard run. So there is a precedent for reviewing it out of sequence.

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    1. Yeah TKO is basically the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie that was shoved into the first season. I had no idea it was held back because of violence (and I still don't remember it happening), so I guess that's some trivia I can steal and use when I eventually get around to it.

      Though I'm watching it out of sequence because of a line of foreshadowing for the episode Chrysalis, and according to the quick bit of research I just did Channel 4 went and aired it AFTER Chrysalis. So good job there guys, you made it worse.

      Personally I think C4 was just trying to save UK audiences from having to watch it at all, seeing as every time there's a brawl on B5 everyone always breaks out the kickboxing, and they didn't hold back any of those other episodes until 11pm. Unless they did.

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    2. "Note 1: The episode TKO was not shown on the initial Channel 4 run because of its subject matter, kickboxing, which is banned in Britain, and the fact that it was deemed too violent for its 6pm slot. It was eventually screened at 10.30pm on Saturday 21st January 1995, as a prelude to the second season."

      That's from http://www.historyfiles.co.uk/Guide/Babylon5.htm. For once my memory hasn't failed me!

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  2. Being very careful to avoid spoliers...

    The image of B5 exploding stayed with me throughout my first watch of the series, particularly after Babylon Squared which underlined the 'we're not kidding about this show having continuity' point in my mind.

    It wasn't until many, many years later that I read JMS original arc plan and realised 'ahhhhh! It all makes sense now'

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    1. I think it says a lot about the approach JMS had to planning out the series that it still holds together and makes sense even though the original plan had to be changed. In fact I think it works out much better this way, for reasons I'll maybe talk about four and a half years from now.

      So every time I hear another writer talking about how planning entire seasons of TV in advance is impossible I think 'sure, but try it anyway!' It means you at least have an idea where you're going and doesn't stop you from going off the rails entirely when the rails prove inadequate. Also it means that not only can you lead to a satisfying ending, you can film it a whole year in advance!

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