Excellent continuation of the Narn-Centauri conflict is undermined by weak standalone episodes and limited character growth. *** SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED WATCHING SEASON 2*** The Story When Season 2 focuses on the Narn-Centauri conflict, it is pure television gold. “The Coming of Shadows” provides G’Kar and Londo with some of their best character moments yet. It’s an emotional roller coaster of an episode focused on how these two very different men react to the prospect of peace and war. My favorite episode of the season, “And Now for a Word,” is filmed like in-universe news footage as an ISN news team (the Babylon 5 equivalent of Fox News) interviews the main characters and provides “live” reporting. It’s a great way to look at the main characters from a different perspective and to keep the story fresh. Londo’s attempts to spin the Centauri invasion of Narn space really takes advantage of actor Peter Jurasik’s “Old World” charisma.
By contrast, as I noted in my review of Season 1, Babylon 5 seems to struggle to reconcile the episodic format of TV with the serialized nature of its story. The primary story did not need 22 episodes per season, meaning that many of the episodes feel like filler. During the first half the season, many of the episodes focus on plot without telling a clear story (there is a crucial difference between plot and story). We get introduced to new aliens or characters, but they seem primarily to serve to foreshadow future events rather than providing a complete story for that given episode. I often found myself wondering about the goals of particular episodes.
In retrospect, the story would probably have benefitted from shorter, more focused seasons, as with HBO’s Game of Thrones (which currently has about 10 episodes per season). For example, in “The Geometry of Shadows,” we meet the Techno-Mages, a group that uses technology to simulate the wonders of magic. The Techno-Mages are a brilliant way to include wizards in a science fiction setting. But the Techno-Mages don’t do anything of interest in the episode. Londo tries to obtain an endorsement from the Techno-Mages, and there’s some vague discussion that they are fleeing known space in order to avoid a war. But again I got the sense that the entire episode was designed simply to introduce the group rather than to tell a story. What was the point of their visit? What did we learn about the plot or the characters through their visit? Hopefully at some point the Techno-Mages will return in an episode worthy of the concept.
Bruce Boxleitner (Captain John Sheridan) replaced Michael O’Hare (Commander Jeffrey Sinclair) as Babylon 5‘s lead in Season 2. O’Hare’s performance as Sinclair was fine, but his low-key nature often left scenes bereft of energy. By contrast, Boxleitner’s Sheridan is a much feistier character. He’s a man with real passions and interests. He’s quicker to anger. I can readily believe that this is a man whom soldiers will follow into battle. As much as I like Sheridan, his introduction was handled poorly. Sinclair’s departure should have been an important emotional and character moment for the show, but instead it’s just a plot point. In the first episode of Season 2, Commander Sinclair is nowhere to be seen. There is a lot of exposition telling rather than showing viewers why he left (in reality, the actor left the show due to a mental illness), and yet more exposition filling us in on Sheridan’s backstory. It’s all rather sudden and deprives the other major characters of the opportunity to say their farewells to Sinclair. The other characters acknowledge Sinclair’s departure, but there’s relatively little emotional reaction.
Another major character, Talia Winters, departs later in the season because it is revealed that she was programmed by Psy-Corps to act as a spy. It’s such an unoriginal departure and again seems to throw away any investment I had in the character. Ironically, she had actually gotten an interesting character arc earlier in the season as she started to help Telepaths fleeing Psy-Corps (the “Telepath Underground”). As such, it’s all the more frustrating when in “Divided Loyalties” she’s revealed to be a zombified spy. It’s as if the writers suddenly turned to the audience and said, “just kidding about that character arc!” On the other hand, Season 2 kind of introduces a new character, Keffer, a Starfury pilot. He is in the show’s opening credits so I assume that he was supposed to be a major character. He even hangs out with Ivonova and Sheridan at the bar. However, he’s never introduced to viewers and is only present in a handful of episodes.
Upon further research, I learned that the studio forced Straczynski to include a fighter jock character against his will. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not an excuse for not even trying to make him an interesting character. I have spent a lot of time on the departures and introductions of major characters, but it’s an important point because it determines the payoff we get on our investment in the character. At this point, if I rewatch this show, will I be able to enjoy any episodes focused on Sinclair or Talia Winters knowing what I know now?
Production Values The special effects still look dated, but they no longer distract from the story. The directors do a better job of showing viewers only what they need to understand the story and not lingering on effects shots. I would love one day for Fox to remaster the special effects, but unless something revives interest in Babylon 5 I don’t think there’s enough of a market for such a large undertaking. Overall Season 2 still has many problems, but it does manage to tell a compelling story. The Narn-Centauri conflict alone is worth the price of admission. Straczynski clearly enjoys playing with audiences’ expectations and does so brilliantly as he steadily undermines our initial expectations of Londo and G’Kar. I just hope the rest of the show catches up with the Narn-Centauri arc in Season 3.
My journey through Baylon 5 continues next week with Season 3…