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Saturday, 8 April 2017

Babylon 5 2-01: Points of Departure

Episode:23|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:02-Nov-1994

I've decided that Sci-Fi Adventures needs more variety, so this year I'm planning to feature more TV series and cover less episodes of them. I can't watch entire 26 episode seasons of multiple series and fit them all into 12 months, there aren't enough hours and I write too slowly.

But I can watch 22 episodes of one series, so right now I'm committing myself to giving you reviews of Babylon 5 season two in its entirety, starting with Points of Departure!

I usually mention here that I'll be writing SPOILERS for this episode and earlier ones, but I should also point out that the DVD box art, the DVD menu, the DVD episode list and the region 1 DVD opening credits all spoil Delenn's condition after the events of the season one finale (I'm being as vague as I can here). So if you haven't see the series yet, you should probably wear a blindfold while purchasing, handling and watching season two DVDs, at least for the first couple of episodes.

Oh and stay way clear of the commentary tracks until you've seen the entire series, all five seasons of it.



The episode begins a bit like the start of season one did, well away from Babylon 5 station, with a place and time written on the screen. Chrysalis ended on New Years Day, so there's been just 7 days since the events of last season.

Like it says on screen, this is the EAS Agamemnon, named after the mythological commander of the Greek forces during the Trojan War. We saw a ship called the Hyperion last season, so it seems that Earth's military vessels are all a bit Greek (though not many have a name this awkward to spell or say).

But the Agamemnon's an Omega-class destroyer, one of the heaviest vessels in Earthforce, and far newer and more advanced than a Hyperion-class heavy cruiser. They have a rotating section to create gravity, they're covered in guns, they look like a cross between a steam train wearing smoke deflectors and the Leonov from 2010: Odyssey Two and they're only given to the best and most politically well regarded captains in the fleet.

Like this guy, Captain John Sheridan. He's a veteran of the Earth-Minbari War like Babylon 5's Commander Sinclair, but while Sinclair ended up distrusted by his own people and ultimately respected by the Minbari, this guy is Earth's greatest hero and the Minbari's most hated villain. He also smiles a lot and likes oranges.

Right now he's being given two jobs by General Hague (who you can just about see on that second monitor over his shoulder):
  1. Locate the rogue Minbari cruiser Trigati which has been AWOL during the 12 years since the end of the war. 
  2. ... we'll find out later.
In case you're wondering, yes there is something different about the uniforms this season. The black piping around the leather has been replaced with red to make it stand out better (or blue piping for the folks in grey coloured uniforms.) Weirdly the uniforms actually started out with the red trim in the pilot, so I guess Earthforce likes to alternate every year or so. If there's another costume change in season 3 I'll let you know.

The production team have also started shooting with a higher f-stop to allow for more contrast, so the show doesn't look as murky now.

Four hours later on Babylon 5 station, we see that Lt. Commander Ivanova is not happy.

In her log she explains that it's been eight days since the death of Earth Alliance President Santiago, and five since Commander Sinclair was recalled back to Earth. In his absence she's been left to run the station herself, but her idea of diplomacy is to shout at people until they agree with her so it hasn't been going well.

This is a really cheesy scene by the way. It starts with a whole swarm of ambassadors trailing her around the station, jumping around and yelling over each other about seating arrangements. They follow her into a lift, the doors close, then it cuts to them opening on another floor to reveal that she's scared them into silence. It gets the point across, but the series usually respects itself more than this. Praying mantis crime boss aside.

Though I do like her line about moving their chairs outside, down the hall, across the station and into the fusion reactor

Whoa, they fixed the TV in the briefing room so that it's entirely rectangular, without triangles covering corners of the screen!

Now it's Ivanova's turn to get a message from General Hague and we get to learn the second part of Sheridan's orders. It turns out that Commander Sinclair won't be returning to Babylon 5 and Captain Sheridan will be taking over to replace him as the protagonist and lead action hero, permanently.

Michael O'Hare needed to step away from the series due to his mental illness (he did well to hold on long enough to finish the first season), but his character's departure makes perfect sense in-universe. Sinclair wasn't the first choice to command Babylon 5 by a long shot and had to struggle to hold onto his position against factions in the government who wanted him gone. After the assassination of President Santiago, it makes sense that the new administration would kick the guy out the first chance they got.

Deep Space Nine also got a new lead actor for its last four seasons, as Avery Brooks was replaced by Avery Brooks with a shaved head and a beard. No one ever came out and said that he was a parallel universe doppelgänger from the dimension where he's a much better actor, but we could all tell.


OPENING TITLES.


A new season means a opening credits sequence, a new opening narration by Sheridan and even a slightly darker theme song. I know some people prefer consistency, but I'm disappointed when I start a new season of a show and it's got the same titles as last time. A new opening gives a season its own identity and makes it feel like a distinct chapter, one with an end in sight.

This season we also get this new shot of a market with a second floor digitally composited in. I think they were getting jealous of Deep Space Nine's multi-storey mall. Plus the actors all get their faces in the credits now, so we know who is who!

Wait, who the fuck is this guy? Warren Keffer? Uh, I guess he's a lead character now then. I hope he's more interesting than I remember, because I don't remember him at all.


ACT ONE.


After the episode gets bored of listing cast members (there's like 12 of them now) we learn that Commander Sinclair has been reassigned as Earth's ambassador to the Minbari homeworld, so I definitely hope he's gotten over that urge to strangle them whenever they bring up the war.

Delenn remains the Minbari ambassador to Babylon 5, but she's been negligent of her duties of late, due to being inside a chrysalis since the end of Chrysalis. Whether she'll come out as a moth or a butterfly no one knows, but this guy definitely isn't happy she went inside in the first place. He's part of the Grey Council, the Minbari government, and they specifically told her to let prophecy attend to itself (back in Babylon Squared). I guess he was waiting for her to trip and fall inside by accident or something.

He tells Lennier that if the rogue Minbari cruiser Trigati turns up he should tell the humans everything they've told him. It's time they know the truth.

Over in the customs area, Ivanova has an opportunity to demonstrate her ability to improvise in a hurry when Sheridan's ship arrives earlier than planned. She wanted a full honour guard present to greet him but she settles for grabbing a single security guard by the elbow and trying to drag her over without him noticing.

Ivanova surrenders command of the station to him, and gratefully so as she's had a miserable week. Plus she's served under Sheridan before and knows he's not like all those smug bastard captains that showed up during season one to undermine Sinclair's authority.

He's actually very cheerful and friendly, though the fact that he's her old friend means that doom will eventually follow in his wake. Delenn's old friend got stabbed by a Space Nazi, Ivanova's old friend turned out to be the Space Nazi who did it, Franklin's old friend smuggled a bio-weapon on board that nearly killed them all, Talia's old friend was a super telepath that nearly killed them all, and Garibaldi's old friend had him arrested for conspiring to assassinate the President. Oh plus two old friends showed up at once in the episode TKO and made the episode TKO happen.

Whoa, they've changed the corridors! They've got more details and tidier looking wooden strips along the wall.

No wonder Ivanova's so stressed out, if she's been trying to get the entire station redecorated in a week. Maybe this was Sinclair's revenge for having his station taken away from him. "Ivanova, if I'm not back in three days, take Babylon 5's military budget for the year and spend it on giving the station a full makeover."

1-16 - Eyes
Here's a season one corridor for comparison, just to confuse you with a shot of two other characters as I go back to talking about Sheridan and Ivanova again. Oh by the way, that guy on the left, Security Chief Garibaldi, he's still lying in a coma due to being shot in the back last season.

After Sheridan finishes admitting that he dreams about fresh oranges, Ivanova fills him in on everything else that's been going on lately: Ambassador G'Kar has vanished, Ambassador Delenn is in a cocoon, they've discovered that the President's death wasn't an accident, and they still haven't learned what Ambassador Kosh looks like under his encounter suit (though they're fairly sure he isn't a brain-sucking tentacle creature at this point).

It turns out that Sheridan was the late President Santiago's first choice to take over B5 if anything happened to Sinclair, but Ivanova's surprised he was chosen for the post, considering his history with the Minbari.
Ivanova: "I hear they still call you Starkiller."
Sheridan: "That was a long time ago, 12 years. Maybe they've forgotten about it by now."
Uh... no, they haven't forgotten, that's why they still call you Starkiller.

Incidentally, Luke Skywalker was originally going to be called Starkiller as well. Either way his name's still Luke S... as in George Lucas. J. Michael Straczynski apparently likes naming heroes after himself as well, as Jeffrey Sinclair just got replaced by John Sheridan.

Also if you write out the first names of the three main Earthforce characters in the series, John Michael Susan, you'll see some very familiar initials.

Meanwhile the Minbari from the Grey Council we saw earlier has just ran into the captain of the missing Trigati on Babylon 5!

Kalain (the rogue Trigati captain with the ice claws on the right) is a bit pissed off at the moment. He could tolerate Sinclair being in charge of B5, after all the Minbari were the ones who chose him for the job, but Sheridan running the place is an obscenity. Hedronn (the Grey Council guy on the left played by Robin Sachs) explains that they protested, but the new Earth government just ignored them!

Kalain's not happy about Delenn's transformation either, or Sinclair being on Minbar. In fact he warns Hedronn to get off of Babylon 5 fast, before he acts on his anger. Not sure whether that was a 'I'm gonna stab you with ice claws' threat or an 'I'm going to blow up the station' threat, but either way it's not good for Hedronn.


ACT TWO.


Down in Medlab, Garibaldi is still in critical condition after being shot by his second in command last week. Not that anyone knows that he did it; in fact the bastard is probably running station security in his place right now.

We get a momentary glimpse of Jerry Doyle as Garibaldi here to continue his perfect attendance record, but he doesn't exactly say much. If you count the pilot movie he's actually the only actor to have been in every single episode so far. Sinclair had him matched, but since he's been reassigned to Minbar he's now out of the running. If you're curious, second place is Ivanova, third place... is Tech #1.

Sure she never got her name into the opening credits... in fact she never got a name at all and rarely got a line, but Tech #1 missed just two episodes of the first season. Most of the other main characters showed up in a little over half the episodes and Talia Winters appeared in less than a third of them.

Sadly Marianne Robertson's final appearance as Tech #1 was in Chrysalis, so she's gone now, but the title has been passed down to Joshua Cox, who one day will get a name.

Meanwhile, Sheridan in the briefing room/commander's office/whatever having a chat with Hedronn. He was trying to give his customary good luck speech to the crew in C&C, but Hedronn just had to speak to him urgently about Kalain, so now they're doing that.

Sheridan's a canny captain though and figures out that Kalain must be the commander of the Trigati and that Hedronn is Grey Council. Hedronn reveals that the Trigati crew believe they were betrayed by their own government when the Minbari surrendered during the war 12 years ago and have been in self-imposed exile ever since. But with Sheridan here they've got a reason to come out of retirement.

By the way, Sinclair's WWII themed wall art was removed from his office at some point, and it turns out there was a window behind it the whole time! Either that or Ivanova took her anger out on the wall one day.

Hedronn's not all that happy about Sheridan being in charge here either, yelling at him on his way out for bringing a doom to the station. Turns out that Sheridan earned the name Starkiller by blowing up the Minbari flagship, the 'Black Star', during the Earth-Minbari War. Earthforce sensors can't lock onto Minbari ships due to their stealth systems, so he mined an asteroid field and got the ship that way instead. It was the only real victory Earth had during the whole war apparently and Sheridan's not about to apologise about it to Hedronn, Kalain or any Minbari.

Suddenly Sheridan figures out what Kalain's up to. If he feels that the Minbari government betrayed him by surrendering, he's going to be going after their representative... Ambassador Delenn!

Ambassador Delenn is kind of cocooned at the moment though so her assistant Lennier is forced to intervene. Suddenly a beautifully choreographed fight scene between the two Minbari entirely fails to happen, as the episode cuts to commercials instead.


ACT THREE.


Too late Kalain! You should've shot Delenn during the ad break, as you've missed your chance now.

We're already seeing how Sheridan's command style differs from Sinclair's as he's standing behind his security people, like a commander should. Sinclair would've grabbed one of their guns and gone in first. In fact he would've gone in without them and ended up in a fist fight against a super-strong Minbari warrior. And he would've won.

Whoa, a night time shot of the station. I'm not sure we ever saw it in shadow like this in season one. Must have taken forever to render this shot with all those lights on it.

With Kalain in custody and the Trigati out there ready to make its move, Lennier realises that it is the right time to tell Sheridan what the Minbari have been keeping from us all last season: the reason that they surrendered during the Earth-Minbari War!

We did get an explanation for that last year in Babylon Squared when Delenn had a secret chat with the Grey Council, and mentioned that they'd brought Sinclair's fighter aboard their cruiser during the Battle of the Line and discovered to their horror that he lit up one of their sacred Triluminary devices when they scanned him with it.

This means that the humans they'd been slaughtering were the ones spoken of in their ancient prophecy, and they'd been given clear instructions not to interfere with their very important destiny. Whoops.

But there's more to it than that. Turns out that the Triluminary isn't a general purpose prophecy detector, it reacts to something very specific.

When Delenn and the others scanned Sinclair that day 12 years ago at the Battle of the Line, they discovered that he had a Minbari soul! Or at least that's what they believe. They theorised that Minbari souls were being reincarnated in human bodies, which could explain why fewer Minbari have been born into each generation lately.

So that's why the the Grey Council really surrendered during the war, because Minbari don't kill other Minbari (not deliberately at least). They had to keep it a secret though because if the public knew what was going on it could cause chaos. That's a pretty major reveal for the season premier; they must be tidying the Sinclair arc away in a hurry now that he's left the show.

Of course it might all be bullshit, Sheridan definitely doesn't buy into it, but what important is that it's the 'truth' that the Minbari leaders and Delenn are operating from. And we do know already that souls can be real tangible things thanks to Soul Hunter.

And then the Trigati suddenly emerges from hyperspace with its gun ports open and its targeting systems operational. If Babylon 5 wore pants it would've crapped them by now.


ACT FOUR.


Meanwhile down in the cobra bays, the space fighter pilots are... hey it's Keffer! I recognise him from the opening credits (and also Wing Commander IV, where he played a space fighter pilot).

He's trying to listen to his holographic girlfriend talk about hotel wallpaper but he's called over by another pilot to see the big-ass Minbari cruiser coming to murder them, and we get this brilliant piece of dialogue:
"It's getting so a man can't even enjoy a letter from home any more."
I dunno, maybe it's just his delivery that makes it sound ridiculous, I can't tell. He doesn't get time to say much else though before their Starfuries are scrambled.

The first officer of the Trigati hails the station, demanding the release of her captain, who she claims is being held illegally. She figures that breaking into an ambassador's quarters and holding a gun to their head isn't really a big deal as long as no one got killed. Plus she's pointing lots of guns at them so they should really do what she asks.

Sheridan's a bit confused by their behaviour as all he's done is locked someone away, until he puts two and two together and checks the status of their prisoner. And it turns out that Kalain's dead, killed by a poison in his tooth. All part of a plan to escalate the situation.

The Trigati fighters are closing in, so Sheridan has no choice but to order his own Starfury fighters to intercept.

But then he's even more confused when his Starfuries are able to lock on to the Trigati's fighters. It's been over a decade since the war, but an old Minbari cruiser is still way more advanced than an Earth Alliance station. They shouldn't be able to break through their stealth, but they can.

By the way there's Joshua Cox on the left in his new position as Tech #1, hanging around in C&C and relaying information to the command staff exactly as he did in season one. Except with more lines now I guess.

Anyway, Sheridan has a plan! His plan is to use the communications laser to send a tight beam transmission through the jump gate to secret coordinates. He can't tell his crew who he's contacting though for reasons of drama.

He said earlier that he didn't want to make any provocative moves that could trigger a shooting war, but if I was on the Trigati and I saw a bright red energy beam shoot out from the top of the station like that, I'd have concerns. Especially as the ship is currently sitting between the station and the jump gate they're shooting at.

Fortunately they don't react, though the Minbari fighters are still inbound and the pilots in the Starfuries are getting a little nervous.

But Sheridan refuses to fire first and the Minbari fighters get closer, and closer, and closer... and then just fly on past them and loop back to their mothership.

The rogue Minbari want an honourable death in combat, so they're doing whatever they can to start a fight without actually starting the fight. Sheridan knew what they were up to when he realised that they'd disabled their stealth systems, and if he doesn't play along they can't open fire.

And then Sheridan's back up arrives... a second Minbari cruiser. He knew that the Minbari government had sent a cruiser out to search for the Trigati and figured that they'd be hanging around in hyperspace until they heard about a sighting, so he called them with his laser. Sheridan knows a lot of things in this episode.

Then the other cruiser shows what one of these things can do when they're not holding back...
 
...by slicing right through the Trigati's engines with a single cut. No energy shields in this universe.

The Trigati can't escape, but the crew are unharmed, so that's pretty much a win. Or at least it would've been if they'd surrendered instead of setting their engines to overload, vaporising the ship and all the fighters surrounding it. Sheridan thanks the second ship for the assist but just gets more crap about his name being remembered.

He's worrying now that he actually has brought doom to the station, because if Sinclair was still in charge none of this would've happened. But Ivanova tells him there's enough guilt in the world without him looking for more of it.

Later, we see that Lennier is still in Delenn's quarters, looking after her candle collection. She's not very talkative due to being unconscious in a cocoon, but he decides to talk to her anyway, saying that he wishes he could've told Sheridan everything. A great enemy is returning and prophecy states that the humans and Minbari must unite against the coming darkness or they'll both be destroyed. So now we know that humanity's great destiny is saving the Minbari's ass.

But the humans have to learn this for themselves, for the sake of the ongoing story arcs.


ACT FIVE.


Huh, the episode's still going?

This is a brand new location for this season: Earharts, the station's officer's club. Which is good, because it gives the Earth Alliance cast somewhere to hang out together outside of work, and bad, because they only play swing and big-band music here.

This scene is mostly to give Keffer a chance to share a bit of screen time with other main characters,  so they can talk about how great Sheridan is.

He was supposed to meet them here actually, but there's something he has to do first. Whenever he takes a new assignment he has to give a certain speech within 24 hours, as it's become his good luck charm. Superstition, there's an admirable quality in a leader. He was interrupted earlier though so now he has to rush to finish it off in time.

The fact that C&C is in standby mode right now and everyone's out doesn't put him off one bit. He only has to give the speech, he doesn't need people to hear it.


CONCLUSION

I'm going to have to go looking through my text for 'Hedronn' and make sure I never called him 'Headroom' by mistake. I should probably check that I haven't gotten any 'Sinclair's and 'Sheridan's swapped around as well.

Despite being by the same writer and director (JMS and Janet Greek) Points of Departure isn't exactly Chrysalis, Part 2, but as a point of departure for the new season it gets the job done, introducing a new protagonist and handing the series over to him. And Bruce Boxleitner takes the ball and runs with it as the friendly but cunning John Sheridan, showing that Doctor Who isn't the only series that can actually grow stronger by getting a new lead actor. Not that I had any problem with the character of Commander Sinclair or Michael O'Hare's acting (well, except when the character was acting), but Sheridan brings a new life to the series, which goes well with the new look and the improved sets. It feels like they've come a long way since the pilot movie, partially because no one from the pilot is actually in this story, with Londo off screen, G'Kar off station, Garibaldi still in a coma, and Delenn seen only in flashbacks.

As far as the mythology goes, this makes it pretty clear where the Minbari stand, resolving Sinclair's arc from season 1. It's a shame he wasn't around to hear the answers (and Delenn wasn't around to reveal them), but that's his own fault for forgetting to visit her in Chrysalis. But even though the episode states that the President is the only other human besides Sheridan and Ivanova who knows the full story about Minbari souls being reborn in humans (and he doesn't believe it), Sinclair's actually on Minbar now so I'm sure he'll find out eventually. Also who'd have thought that Soul Hunter would provide a necessary piece of the puzzle? Why won't they just let us forget that bloody episode?

Oh plus there's that Trigati plot that the episode's actually about. It was alright, can't complain about getting to see the Starfuries out and about, but I feel like I got enough of the warrior caste sulking about not getting to wipe out humanity back in Legacies. Though to be fair here they're also sulking about someone actually beating them... in one single encounter over a decade ago. Which is something entirely different! It's nice though that there was a puzzle to be solved here, and interesting that even though Sheridan did everything right, it still ended in tragedy with the Minbari cursing his name. More so than they were already I mean.

So yeah this one's worth watching, as it introduces the series' main character, it's important to the ongoing plot and it's fairly decent in its own right.



COMING SOON
Babylon 5 will return with Revelations. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm going back to Doctor Who. Way back to the Tom Baker era in fact, with series 14's The Face of Evil!

If you want to share your thoughts on Points of Departure, my website, or stuff, then feel free to leave a comment in the box situated below. It hungers for your insights and opinions.

4 comments:

  1. I can recommend Babylon 5: To Dream in the City of Sorrows if you haven't read it. It's written by JMS's wife about what Sinclair got up to on the Minbari homeworld (plus it's actually canon unlike most of the books).

    Note to anyone else wanting to take a look, the book does have spoilers for future B5 episodes, so one to read once you've watched the TV series.

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    1. To Dream in the City of Sorrows is actually the only Babylon 5 book I've read, unless you count the In Valen's Name comic, and I remember them both being pretty essential to get the full story about Sinclair's adventures with the Minbari. I'm trying to keep my remembering to a minimum though, until the episodes I'm watching have overtaken them.

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  2. The speech scene at the end is cute, but it's hard for me to believe that C&C is ever left completely unstaffed. Especially given how many times we saw Sinclair and Ivanova getting called while they were in bed.

    Whenever I rewatch B5, I always get the sense of the show being energized when the second season starts and Sheridan is introduced. I think Sheridan's relentless optimism plays off Ivanova's snappish pessimism and Garibaldi's hapless cynicism better than Sheridan's more thoughtful and subdued demeanor. This show needs someone to deliver the Kirk Speech sometimes, and Bruce Boxleitner can pull that off.

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    Replies
    1. The way JMS explains it, the departments have their own control areas, like Garibaldi's security room, so if anything happens during the 4 hours a week that C&C's shut down for maintenance they're immediately on the case and basically only have to run next door. Then they wake up poor Ivanova too. But I agree that it's weird to ever have it entirely empty.

      Also yeah Sheridan really does bring a different energy to the series. I don't know if he's relentlessly optimistic, but he's definitely a lot happier with his existence than Sinclair was, and more driven too. You're right about the Kirk Speech too, though now I'm going to be imagining how Shatner would've delivered it next time Sheridan has a monologue.

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