RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Parliament of Dreams” (Season 1, Episode 5)

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And just like that - bang - Babylon 5 is firing on all cylinders! After a mediocre start and two significant fumbles, suddenly we get a strong sense of what the show wants to be and what it’s capable of.

PLAY BY PLAY

Babylon 5 is hosting a religious festival where all of the various species living on the station conduct demonstrations of the ceremonies and beliefs of their homeworld’s dominant faith. Sinclair can’t really figure what to showcase as earth’s dominant religion given that there are so many of them. Londo demonstrates a huge Romanesque epicurean feast “Which can last up to a week, eating, purging, eating, purging…” Delenn demonstrates a Minbari “Rebirth” Festival recounting how Valen first formed the Grey Council, and it doubles as a marriage ceremony. Curiously, G’kar doesn’t showcase anything, though he is distracted with other pressing matters. Ultimately Sinclair realizes that the dominant religion of earth is the multiplicity of religion itself, not just one. By way of a ’ceremony,’ he simply forms a VERY long line of people with differing faiths - Atheist, Roman Catholic, Zen Buddhist, Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, the Sioux faith, Greek Orthodox, The Ibo religion, the Upik Eskimo religion, Hindu, Taoist, Aboriginal, Shinto, and so on - and introduces each of them in turn to the alien ambassadors. It’s a touching scene.

Meanwhile, the commander’s old on again/off again girlfriend - Catherine Sakai - comes to the station, and they end up on again. This is a cycle they’ve been through for a bout a decade. They decide to give it another shot and see if they can make it work this time.

Meanwhile, Lannier is introduced: He’s Ambassador Delenn’s new attaché. He’s young, and he’s a novice straight out of temple. He’s very formal, and won’t look Delenn in the eye. “I can’t have an assistant who will not look up,” she says, “You will be forever bumping in to things.” She commands him to behave normally around him, and not to call her by her Grey Council title. He doesn’t get it, but “Understanding is not required. Obedience is.”

Meanwhile, one of G’kar’s old political rivals has hired an assassin to kill him. G’kar is increasingly paranoid - and funny - since he knows the killer must be someone close to him physically. This is made worth when Na’Toth - his new attaché - is introduced after someone shoved his old one (Ko’Doth from “Born to the Purple”) out an airlock. He doesn’t trust her, and goes as far as to hire one of the Morg aliens from NaGrath as a bodyguard, but that guy doesn’t even survive one scene. G’kar fails utterly to solve the mystery on his own, and is captured by the assassin, who begins to torture him using an electric dog collar. Na’Toth introduces himself as the killer’s backup - which is probably supposed to be believable to us, since we really don’t know who she is at this point, but it doesn’t really work - but he doesn’t believe it. She kicks the crap out of G’kar by way of proof, but he still doesn’t believe it. She did, however, kick the dog collar of G’kar in the process, which freed him. He savagely beats the assassin - G’kar is a gorilla! He can puck a full-grown man (Well, Narn) up over his head with both arms and hurl him at a wall! - and then drugs him. He keeps the guy drugged until the assassination deadline is passed, and makes a substantial deposit into would-be killer’s bank account, thus making it look like the assassin took a bribe. This means the other assassins from the guild will hunt him down and kill him. He flees the station, and probably won’t survive. It’s funny! No, really! This whole plot is pretty darn funny.

OBSERVATIONS

Man, they really are laying on the major characters with a trowel, aren’t they? We got three new ones introduced in this episode: Catherine, Na’Toth, and Lannier. That brings our total cast up to TWELVE major characters (Though Kosh and Catherine are basically recurring, they’re very prominent recurring characters). Quite the ensemble, when compared to other genre shows of the period.

This episode makes a very good use of the location and the premise of the show, and it does a good job making the station feel like a *place,* with a lot of hustle and bustle, and a lot of different things going on all at once all over the place.

We find out a lot about the various alien species:

- At the dawn of recorded Centauri history, there were two sapient species on their world: themselves and the Xon. They fought to survive for generations, but eventually the Xon died out. The Centauri have no remorse for this specicide and celebrate it with massive parties and bad jokes. (Q:What did the last Xon say right before he died? A: Arrrrgh!) I’d kind of assumed this would come back into play later on, and I suspect it was intended to, but this is all we really hear about it. (Though a glimmer of something derived from it shows up - strongly suspect - in the season five episode “Secrets of the Soul.” We’ll discuss it when we get ‘round to that one in a couple years) The Centauri are polytheistic.

- The Minbari venerate someone named “Valen,” and the Grey Council date their lineage back to when he first called his disciples. Sounds familiar, huh? We’ll find out vastly more about this “Valen” guy as the series progresses. The Minbari “Rebirth” ceremony is very much like a Communion ceremony, an also doubles as a wedding ceremony. “Depending on how seriously people were taking it, somebody got married in there.” So who got hitched? Well, this will ultimately be one of those points where the story veered off track owing to behind-the-scenes stuff, so there’s not a direct payoff in the show itself. However, it’s pretty obvious from watching the scene what was intended. This does *not* comprise a continuity error in the series itself, however, since Joe left himself a backdoor for interpretation of this.

- The Narn religion was not represented, but it will be examined in far greater detail a bit later in this season. That’s a really good episode to come, by the way. An offhand reference by Na’Toth suggests they - or at least some of them - might believe in reincarnation. Or it could just be something she said because she thought it was funny. She’s a vicious one, that girl. I like her a lot.

- The Drazi religious ceremonies involve knives.

Religion is, of course, a huge, huge, huge focal point of the Babylon 5 storyline, and unlike most of the shows before it (And most since), it treats religion with respect. It never takes a stance on whether any or all of these faiths are right or wrong, but it always maintains that religion and faith are massive parts of life, and whether or not they’re true, they’re meaningful to us, an inseparable part of culture. (For the record, Joe Straczynski is an atheist) Religions are repeatedly shown to have both good followers and bad ones. I can not stress what a huge breath of fresh air this was at the time. All too often in SF television, religion is either completely ignored, or derided, or shown to be preternatural (“We thought they were angels, but it turns out they were just aliens on a bender”). The fact that there is some dignity and sanctity in religion was something that really no serious SF show had ever touched.

Sinclair has a brother who was never mentioned before, and will never be mentioned again. I wonder if Ben Kyle raised him, too? I also wonder exactly how ‘hands on’ and frequent Kyle’s entirely-theoretical raising of Sinclair was, as we’ll see in a later episode. (To be honest, I think they’d pretty much ditched the whole “Ben raised Jeff” thing by this point, or were backing away from it)

G’kar is worried about being poisoned for obvious reasons. During the Minbari religious ceremony, he very quickly and surreptitiously switches his fruit with Ivonova’s when she isn’t looking. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene, I never noticed it before watching it this time, but I laughed really hard.

Ivonova is very happily drunk at the Centauri ceremony. It’s the first time we’ve seen her smile, much less laugh.

Vir: “He’s become one with his inner self!”
Garibialdi: “He’s passed out!”
Vir: “Yeah, that too.”

Sinclair mentions that he and Caroline Sykes - his girlfriend from the pilot - broke up about a year before this episode. The romantic dialog this time out is pretty coy, pretty stagey, pretty romance novel (“I don’t know what I want, and for this one moment I don’t care. Please don’t send me away. Please don’t make me feel like a fool.” “You know me well enough to know I could never do that.” “Don’t touch me unless you mean it!” and so on.) That said, I don’t really mind the artificiality of it. The idea of the main character having a steady, stable romantic life was - oddly - something that hadn’t really been done before in an American SF show. The captain can have a woman in every port, but he can’t have one in his home. Having a set emotional life for Sinclair was unexpectedly refreshing. I also really like the idea of two people who love each other, but aren’t able to make it work for whatever reason. I also like that they keep giving it “one more try” after another *because* they really love each other. (And this brings us back to the “Rebirth” ceremony. There’s a romantic triangle being set up here.)

Catharine Sakai went to the same academy as Sinclair. It’s unclear if she graduated, and if she served in the military, but I think we’re supposed to think she did. There’s a lot of mentions of the war. She’s now a civilian scout/surveyor/prospector. Her job is to go into as-yet unexplored solar systems, scan and map them, and report back with information to determine if a larger expedition is justified. She was probably a pilot in the military. One wonders if she was a fighter jock. Up until she hooks up with Sinclair again in this episode, she appears to have been sleeping in her ship, rather than getting a hotel.

She mentions that she’s making a run to survey “The Deneb Sector” and will be back by next Tuesday. Deneb is about 1500 Light Years from B5. You can do three thousand LY in a week? Wow! For that matter, Antares (As in “Antarean Flarn” is about 600 LY away). How fast and how integrated is galactic civilization? How far have humans ventured into space? Remember, B5 itself is only 8 LY from earth.

This is the first episode to feature G’kar as something other than an adversary, and the first one to really make use of Andreas Katsulas’ amazing acting talents. G’kar is really funny without overselling it, and the scenes of him freaking out are almost as good as the scenes of him flustered and indignant. What really sells it, though, are the scenes of him puttering around in his kitchen making himself dinner while singing, and his snide reactions to a message from his political adversary (Du’Rog: “I am dying.” G’kar: “About time.”) G’kar is one of the most complex, fascinating, iconic performances ever on TV, and we just start to get a glimpse of him here, both character wise and physically. There is some EXTENSIVE and impressive prosthetic work on G’kar this time out. His chest and forearms are exposed, and the detail is entertainingly strange. His ribs aren’t where they’d be in a human.

This episode marks the first time we see G’kars quarters. The lighting is red, which suggests his people come from a different kind of star than we do, and he’s got a fred flintstone kinda’ cave-man table. The monitor in his room is really small, oddly. G’kar fought in the revolution against the Centauri, spent five years in the government council, and survived two previous assassination attempts. He’s committed a lot of crimes in pursuit of power, but doesn’t really care who knows it. He’s a right bastard. The government of the Narn is called the “Kha’ri,” and it is organized in “Circles,” which outrank each other: First is highest, second lower, third lower still, and so on.

Pay attention to the voices in this show: The Drazi with the knife in the beginning was played by Wayne Alexander, who will return many times in many different roles, many of them quite prominent. Basically, if you didn’t have a latex allergy and you could remember your lines, you got re-used a lot on here, but Wayne is the absolute best of the best.

Why is the Narn assassin wearing glasses that were meant for a human? I mean, he doesn’t even have ears to hook ‘em on to…

Na’Toth’s father is named Sha’Toth, so apparently the bit after the apostrophe is the family name.

RECURRING THEMES

* “And so it begins,” said by Delenn. This phrase turns up various times in the series, in pivotal moments, on the lips of people who know faaaaaaaaaaaaaar more than they’re telling. For our purposes, the phrase means “pay attention, stupid, this is heavy stuff goin’ down!”

* G’kar has a thing for human women. This is the second instance of that. Remember when he basically offered to pay for sex with Lyta in the pilot? It’s a well-known rumor among the Narn themselves, and Garibaldi doesn’t seem at all surprised when he finds a human woman’s skivvies lost in G’kar’s couch cushions. Both humans and Narn seem to regard his perversion as more amusing than disturbing. Something they can taunt him with.

* We get a couple quotes from Tennyson’s “Ulysees” in this episode, and there was another one in the pilot. There’ll be more to come. Thematically, this is very important. You might want to go find a copy and read it.

* G’kar will *not* scream when people want him to. It’s a pride issue. He will not give his enemies the satisfaction of seeing him broken. This will come up again in a very very important fashion later.

* The idea that humans are naturally kinda’ freaky and weird and anomalous in the galaxy in that we have so many governments, religions, languages, and whatnot is one that will come up again and again. Not only are we unique, we’re more unique than most. This will turn out to be important, not just for ourselves, but for everyone because we can do something that no other species ever could. I’ll let you stew on that one for a while.

* Prices on the station are high: “Five hundred credits for a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and some Antarean Flarn.” We’ll see more references to this later on. It’s not important, but it is kinda’ interesting.

RANDOM BACKGROUND CRAP

Thanks to the miracle of the pause button, we can read several of the background signs in the arrival area:

“Six different atmospheres are currently available on B5. Others may be created by prior arrangement. Uncommon atmospheric makeups may be synthesized for encounter suits. For specific astrochemical breakdowns, see monitor below”

“Welcome to Babylon 5. Please follow all customs procedures. Time on Babylon 5 is set to earth mean time. Monetary exchange rates through Businesscentralnet. Communications courtesy of Galacticom, ‘A Galactic Miracle.’ [This last bit is evidently Galacticom’s slogan] Babylon 5 is administered by the Earth Alliance.”

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Social Conservatives will not: We’ve got interspecies dating (Which I myself think is pretty icky), human sex outside of marriage, and the basic ecumenical notion that all religions - including atheism - are created equal. (That said, I like the fairly intentional inclusion of Atheism *with* the religions. It is, after all, a belief relating to the supernatural that can not be verified, ergo it, too, is religious. This was intentional.)

If you’re not militant about those things, though, there’s much to like here. It’s a neat show, some neat world building, and really nothing of a political nature to give us pause. I say dive in and enjoy it.

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