RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “And Now For A Word…” (Season 2, Episode 15)

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Now that we’re safely on the downslope side of Season 2, and the show has *finally* found its footing, we get our first really ‘format breaking’ episode. This time out, the story isn’t told as though it’s a standard hour of B5, but rather it’s shot as though it’s a 23rd century news show *about* the Babylon 5 space station. The story, then, is told through the eyes of the reporter and the camera crew. We see what they see, don’t see what they don’t see. In other words, if you’re having trouble with my not-very-good explanation here, the concept is that you’re seeing B5 not as it normally appears to us in the here and now, but as it would appear to an average Joe (Or Jane) who lived in that fictional universe, watching TV 247 years from now. Think of the Walter Winchell episode of “M*A*S*H” and you’ll get the idea.

In storytelling lingo, this is called “In Universe.” And does it work? Well…

PLAY BY PLAY

An Interstellar Network News program called “36 hours” visits B5 to film an episode. They spend 36 hours in some exotic location, reporting all the ins and outs, asking questions, you know: the usual. While arriving at the station, some Narn and Centauri ships start firing on each other. Once on the station, we find lots of injured Centauri all over the loading bay, and Dr. Franklin giving emergency aid. Cynthia, the reporter, tries to get an interview, but everyone’s way too busy.

As the plot unfolds, we find that the Centauri have been using B5 as a means of transporting “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Since these are obviously intended to be used against the Narn in their ongoing war, they decide to stop it, and that’s why they started shooting in the teaser. The Centauri, meanwhile, maintain that since the weapons were transported *outside* the station itself, no rules were broken. This results in a lot of squabbling. Sheridan orders no more of this, and orders the Centauri vessels away. Londo pitches a fit, and in comes a Centauri Cruiser to interdict all traffic. They say they’ll use force to protect their shipping, and B5 has no right to stop it.

Sheridan calmly figures out a way to call their bluff without risking any lives, and this works, but literally *while* they’re congratulating themselves, a Narn heavy cruiser jumps in and starts firing at the Centauri ship. They catch ‘em with their pants down, and it’s destroyed, but it’s a pyrrhic victory as the Narn’s jump engines were damaged in the fight, and they explode as they try to jump away.

That’s pretty much it for plot, really.

In between all this, we get interviews with the characters on station, and a few others as wel;L
- Garibaldi, who has nothing to do in this episode, complains about how he’s got too much to do.
- Sheridan complains about how ‘every time someone loses a war, you just wait a few years, and there’ll be someone bragging about how things would have gone differently if they’d been allowed to fight…’ The reporter points out that earth won the war. “Of course.” Sheridan says, chagrinned.
- Delenn is asked about her newly humanized appearance, and human hatred of the Minbari, and she starts crying.
- Londo is an oily politician, talking to the cameras. He’s good at it.
- G’kar does his normal G’kar stomp, nothing impressive. It’s a waste.
- Lt. Corwin displays fear of Ivonova
- Ivanova barely manages to control her rage at being interviewed.
In addition, we have some interviews with the chairman of the Senate committee that oversees B5 itself.

There’s also a fake Psicorps Recruitment commercial.

OBSERVATIONS

In my market, this episode aired on May 5th, 1995, which was a Friday. I remember this so specifically because that was the only day I was ever around people playing “Magic: The Gathering.” My friend Renaud showed up to drag me away from B5 and go hang out with him and his wife at this local Bennegins sports bar type place that had literally hundreds of people sitting around playing the game. So I didn’t get to see this, but I did get to see a whole lot of people staring at tables and occasionally turning pointers. Score! I mention this only to point out how freakin’ *LONG* ago this show was. Ah, I was young and skinny once…and I was *STILL* blowing it hanging out with geeks. Ah well.

“Weapons of Mass Destruction” was not an amazingly common word in those days, though its use was on the rise, and hearing it definitely made ones ears prick up. Its use here is very specific, and they make a point of hanging a lantern over it each time they use it (IE: Draw attention to it). Since the WMD question *isn’t* resolved in this episode, you just know they’re setting it up for something later in the season, right?

Does the episode work? Ehm…I’m going to say only guardedly. It’s an interesting experiment, and I think it works better here than when they try the same stunt again in season 4, but I think they need to bend the story a bit too much to make it fit this framework. I give mad props for trying something new, but a lot of things seem random or forced.

For instance: Dr. Franklin gives a long and haunted recounting of a friend dying from falling out an airlock when he was a teen. This is a long, and fairly well-acted scene, but it kinda’ has nothing to do with anything, and Franklin’s mood seems randomly grim. Or Delenn’s whole on-camera breakdown just doesn’t fit her character very well. Sheridan is back in ‘Smilin’ Jack’ mode for his interview scenes, and he’s just cheezy as heck.

Now, this *might* actually be very clever. JMS has said that Delenn’s reaction was because she’d more-or-less agreed to the interview based on false pretenses, and then they hit her with questions she wasn’t ready for. This might be true. This might also fit with Sheridan’s embarrassing misrememberance of who actually won the Earth/Minbari war: They may have simply been goading him. If so, this also tracks with G’kar’s somewhat minimal and subdued presence: he may have been mostly edited out in order to make him appear more dangerous and vile. (They make a point of having him talk about how he first killed a man when he was a boy). Likewise, they over-play the whole “Centauri are your great big loveable uncles” aspect pretty strongly. This, indeed, tracks with some stuff we see late in the season. So, probably, all of this was *meant* to be pretty clever, and I guess technically it *is* pretty clever, but here’s where it all falls apart:

We don’t *know* they’re doing this. Nothing I the ep implies that Delenn was tricked on camera, for instance, or that Sheridan was goaded into shooting his mouth off. Nothing suggests that G’kar was doing more stuff that we didn’t see. Thus, what we do see comes off as…uhm….cheezy? And it undercuts the cleverness inherent in the concept. Basically, everything here is fighting its way through a layer of artifice which really comes close to trashing the whole thing.

Ok, I promise to stop saying “Clever” now. In service to our British readers, I’ll point out that I mean the word in the American sense as ‘Tricky, cunning, or imaginative’ and not in the UK sense as simply “Smart.”

Some parts are particularly poorly written. Everything coming out of Senator Quantrell’s mouth is painful to listen to. Total fondue night in Oslo, kids. “I’m just glad you got out of it ok, Cynthia! We need all the good reporters we can get!” He gives a very lackadaisical lip service to the station, saying it was a dream of President Santiago, therefore they owe it to his memory to keep it going, even if it lacks any ‘concrete’ benefits, and even if the political situation has changed so that it doesn’t make much sense. Seriously: Would a politician - chairman of the B5 finance and oversight committee - talk like that? Would the director of NASA go on 60 minutes and say “Yeah, we’re only still around because Kennedy thought we were important, but really we suck and don’t do anything?” Does it *ever* seem plausible for a politician to deliberately slice the throat of his own powerbase on TV? Now if Quantrell was a William Proxmire type, attempting to build his own political clout by destroying *other* people’s projects (Proxmire was the guy who got Apollo shut down), then, yeah, it’d make sense, but here it’s just a muddle. A poorly acted, poorly written muddle. If we’re to make any sense of it, I guess it’s just as evidence that there’s been a regime change at home, and the new administration doesn’t care about B5.

Sheridan’s observation that “We still haven’t recovered from the Minbari war” was interesting.

Of the principle cast, we see Sheridan, Ivonova, Garibaldi, Franklin, Delenn, Londo, and G’kar, and that’s it. Conspicuously absent are Vir, Lannier, Talia, and Keffer (Who?). It’s a little unclear if Na’Toth II is still on the cast (When the season was broadcast, she was in the opening credits, but she’s only actually in two episodes, and the DVD credits don’t list her as part of the principle cast), but whether or not she is, she ain’t here tonight.

“There are among your people those for whom the words ‘never again’ have special resonance.”

Of the also-rans, we’ve got Lt. David Corwin (Who actually got his name assigned in this episode, up to this point he was just “Tech 2” or “Tech 1” in the credits.

Since it started five episodes ago, the mentions and glimpses we’ve had of the Narn/Centauri war do not make things look good for G’kar’s people. They clearly got pasted in “Acts of Sacrifice,” tonight was a strategically stupid draw (They threw away a ship and alienated a neutral power for no gain), and we’re told that six of the last seven battles were losses. Most of the fighting is rumored now to be holding actions and strategic retreats. G’kar denies this, but we know he’s lying, since he mentioned in “Acts of Sacrifice” that their people had never fought a *real* war, just Vietnam-styled guerilla stuff.

The fake psicorps commercial is waaaaaaaay too long, though the Psicop saying “We’re everywhere!” does make me laugh. There’s a fake subliminal add (“Trust the Psicorps! The Psicorps is your friend!”) buried in there which got the thing cut in the UK in 1995.

CONTINUITY PORN

This ep takes place in 2259. We’re told earth met the Centuari “A hundred or so years ago,” so call that 2159.

The Centauri are said to have invaded Narn “About 150 of your years ago,” so call it 2110. They occupied it for a century, and were driven out, so call that 2210-ish. G’kar says that he was a child in the closing days of the occupation, which means he’s somewhere between 50 and 60 earth years old, roughly.

G’kar strongly implies that the Narn were a primitive race prior to meeting the Centauri, and Londo has basically said the same thing, though he’s obviously not terribly reliable. Back in the very first episode, however, we’re told that Ragesh III was a Narn world prior to the Centauri conquest, and ergo they musta’ been space faring. Nay: capable of interstellar travel! Odd. I’m just gonna’ call it a retcon and forget about it.

It’s strongly implied through the series that the conquest of the Narn was the high water mark of the Centauri, and they’ve been in a period of gradual decline since then. The timeline of this is a bit fuzzy, though, as we’re told they were already losers when they’d discovered earth in “The Gathering.”

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Despite being a semi-failure, yes, I think so. It basically accuses the media of being a liberal elite who bend the facts to fit the government, which is pretty much what most of us think anyway. This is one of the many reasons I’ve often said I think JMS is a conservative but doesn’t realize it.

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