Babylon!

This is one of my favourite episodes, for the combination of a couple big plot developments and some great humour.

After a bit of Zack complaining to Garibaldi about his uniform, we open with a meeting of the anti-Shadow alliance. Delenn advocates finding and recruiting any other First Ones – beings of a similar age to the Vorlons and Shadows – who remain in the galaxy. Draal offers the assistance of the Machine in finding the First Ones. The dangers of this undertaking are indicated to be extreme, by both Marcus and Draal (the latter with his usual dose of ham).

G’Kar accosts Delenn with searching questions about her numerous meetings with Sheridan. He asks about Rangers, whom he’s heard of in reference to both human and Minbari members. When she declines to answer, he says he’ll keep making his own inquiries. Clearly, he’s onto more than Delenn would like – which is to be expected, as he was previously the only non-Minbari who seemed to be aware of the Shadows and their history, though a Narn religious text called the Book of G’Quan.

Julie Masante, a representative of the Ministry of Peace, arrives on the station. She meets Sheridan in his office and comments on the patriotism (or lack thereof) of its décor. She’s been sent by the Earth Senate Oversight Committee for Babylon 5 as his new political officer to avoid any further ‘gaffes’ like the problem with the Centauri at the end of last season and ensure his actions are in line with government policy. On one level, this is entirely correct – military decisions should be subordinate to the wider policies of a civilian government. On the other hand, we’re talking about a government that is suspected of gaining power through assassination and has shown rising levels of xenophobia.

Ms. Masante suggests (or ‘suggests’) Sheridan brief her on recent developments over dinner, which conflicts with his need to meet with Draal on the planet’s surface. Since he can’t afford to clue her in on the alliance, he agrees to dinner, and Ivanova subs in for him on the First Ones mission. Masante quizzes Zack and expects him to tell her whatever Sheridan refuses to tell, as a loyal member of Nightwatch.

Masante and Sheridan debate politics over dinner, and she proves to be a master of political doublespeak. She insists Earth has no homeless people – just ‘displaced people’ who have chosen their situation and are lazy, criminal, or mentally unstable. Earth has also instituted ‘correctional centres’ to “filter out the mentally unstable at an early age”. She’s somewhat self-aware in that she openly acknowledges that the ‘end’ of homelessness, poverty, crime and prejudice happened “when we rewrote the dictionary”, and that the problems do exist. But she claims that drawing attention to problems the government is already aware of and trying to fix is just troublemaking. (I’ve certainly heard plenty of that in political discussions.) She’s also pretty clearly hitting on him.

Draal and Ivanova have a fun meeting (“I like you. You’re trouble!”) and he lets her replace him in the Machine to search for the First Ones, warning her not to “stray from the path”. The Path takes her by Sigma 957, where Sinclair’s love Catherine Sakai encountered the First Ones two seasons ago. Ivanova senses them, and then something else – Shadows. She is nearly pulled in but follows the Path back to her own mind. But she also sees Earthforce One in the past, and a recording of Clark saying, “I’ve wanted Santiago dead for so long. I wasn’t sure we could really pull it off. You’re sure it’s done?” Morden’s voice replies, “Earthforce One will never return from Io.”

Draal says a normal human mind should not have been able to see that, so this is clearly due to Ivanova being a latent telepath – the need for her to replace Sheridan was clearly fortuitous. It’s not just a vision, either, as Draal can provide her with a recording, giving the station the proof they need of Clark’s treachery.

Sheridan and Masante return to his quarters, as she’s had some trouble with her room’s lock code. In a couple seconds while he’s facing away from her, fixing a drink, she strips. Just then Ivanova’s projection shows up in the room, and Sheridan starts making out with Masante so Masante won’t see her. He manages to get away for a couple seconds so Ivanova can tell him he’s got a lead on the First Ones; since he can’t get away, Ivanova has to go to Sigma 957 to contact the First Ones. As she leaves, she comments, “Good luck, Captain. I think you’re about to go where everyone has gone before.”

G’Kar, who’s looking very knowledgeable and savvy, inquires after Ivanova and has some pressing questions for Garibaldi. He’s pissed off at Garibaldi’s evasions, and asks to at least be shown some respect. “I sense a gathering of forces that could perhaps help my people.” Or he could help the station staff. Garibaldi says he doesn’t see how. “Perhaps that’s something you should work on,” responds G’Kar.

The next morning, it’s clear Masante got nowhere with Sheridan and is cranky about it; she rebuffs Zack when he hits on her, but tells him there’s a meeting later in the day she expects him to attend. There, she tells them from now on it will be inappropriate for Earthforce personnel to publicly criticize the government or its decisions. (Isn’t that typically the case for civil servants and military?) If they overhear civilians criticizing the government, they are to record the information and pass it along; they’re also authorized to look into a person’s family and friends when investigating them. Zack objects that they’re supposed to follow due process, but she says that only relates to criminal activities, not ‘political’ ones. When another person asks whether this isn’t all rather extreme, she responds that yes, it is; Earth has been “betrayed on nearly every level,” and soon some people will be purged from the government on charges of sedition and spying. This threat warrants some minor and temporary abridgements of rights and freedoms.

This speech is another area where I think Babylon 5 fails by prioritizing the clarity of its political analogies over accurate, plausible depictions of political speeches. Masante sounds like she’s trying to show off that she’s a villain, and invoke all the catchphrases that indicate tyranny to us. That’s not what a government does; if they did this realistically, the meaning of the speech would be the same, but it would sound a lot nicer and the implications would be far more subtle. Goodness sakes’, I could probably cut and paste similar ideas from US government speeches and policy statements over the past decade that had the same essence but fewer obvious fascist catchphrases. There ARE American government records that are about as tone-deaf as Masante (the Office of Legal Council’s torture memos, for instance), but even those were internal, not given as speeches.

(Incidentally, this is one of the areas where I think Mockingjay – the third Hunger Games film, which I’ve recently been to see – does a very effective job. The tyrannical government doesn’t just try to sound like an evil dictatorship – through their mouthpiece, whose identity I won’t spoil, they call for calm, and peace, and reconciliation, and a ceasefire They appeal to the need to work together. They actually make themselves sound somewhat credible to anyone who doesn’t know all the facts.)

Aboard the White Star, Ivanova finds that Marcus has come along as English-to-Minbari translator. Marcus attempts unsuccessful to have a conversation with her. At Sigma 957, they meet a First One ship that’s simultaneously rather comical-looking and somewhat cool, given the limited special effects budget. It’s all multi-coloured and shiny. Ivanova transmits a signal to them, and a giant face (looking like a wooden mask) appears; she asks for help against the Shadows. The face gets very angry when she mentions the Vorlons.

Marcus and Ivanova have some amazing snarky lines in this sequence. (“So they know our language, they’re just not willing to speak to us in it.” “Who knew they were French?”)

Sheridan and Garibaldi view the recording of Clark. They know they can’t release it themselves, so Sheridan decides to send it to General Haig (who, apparently, trusts him among to give credence to a record of unknown provenance making some extremely serious allegations against the Commander-in-Chief). Sheridan resolves this somewhat by saying there’s a code for top-level Earth officials that can’t be faked and will tie the recording to Clark.

After considering Ivanova’s request for help, the face replies “Zog” and disappears. She’s not happy: “Zog what? Zog yes? Zog no?” The ship turns to leave, so it apparently means No. Ivanova says she’s not letting them leave without saying yes. “And how to you propose stopping them?” Marcus snarks. “Perhaps a big red and white sign with the word STOP on it? Oh! I’ll put a bucket on my head and pretend to be the ancient Vorlon god Boojee!” “That’s it!” says Ivanova. “Fine, I’ll get a bucket!” This is Marcus’ first (but not last) perfect moment in the show – the combination of a British accent and snark is really unbeatable.

Ivanova’s got a different idea, though. She taunts the First Ones by saying the Vorlons, in essence, called them pussies, and that the alliance really doesn’t need any other help, because “the Vorlons are really close to perfect anyway.” The First Ones say something angry about the Vorlons, and agree to help the alliance: “When it is time, come to this place. Call our name. We will be here.”

[Do NOT translate the following unless you’ve already watched Season 4.] Ba gur svefg jngpu, vg ybbxf yvxr gur Svefg Barf punatr gurve zvaqf qhr gb puvyqvfu gnhagf, juvpu frrzf engure vzzngher sbe orvatf jub ner uhaqerqf be gubhfnaqf bs zvyyraavn byq. Frrvat gur Ibeybaf’ gehr pbybhef va Frnfba 4 tvirf zr irel qvssrerag crefcrpgvir ba vg: gurfr Svefg Barf’ ernpgvba vf zber nybat gur yvarf bs “Bu, lbh vqvbgf, gur Ibeybaf unir pbaarq gur lbhatre enprf vagb cynlvat gurve tnzrf ntnva. Svar, jr’yy pbzr, orpnhfr pyrneyl jr’er tbvat gb unir gb onvy lbh bhg.”

Back at the station, ISN reports on the evidence appearing to show that Clark had Santiago assassinated. Several Senate committees are urging the appointment of a special prosecutor to evaluate the evidence. As a result of the news and the crisis, Masante has been recalled to Earth. Garibaldi tells his people to keep the peace and, if questioned, just say that they’re waiting for the truth to come out. Zack is stunned and says it has to be a mistake; Garibaldi is angry and asks what Zack told Masante. Zack says he told her nothing of significance, but Garibaldi is still mad. Zack retorts that Garibaldi doesn’t trust him – there’s no such thing as a Code 7R (the code for the alliance meeting at the start of the episode). They part in anger, and Zack asks Masante about a Code 7R, but doesn’t give up Garibaldi as the source. Masante says whoever is responsible for giving out the Clark recording will be published “severely, publicly, and permanently”.

At the end of the episode, Garibaldi is asleep in his quarters when G’Kar rings the doorbell and hands him a the Book of G’Quan. “Read it. We’ll talk after.” “I don’t read Narn,” Garibaldi protests. “Learn!”

We know the book has information on the Shadows in it, so it could genuinely be of use. Garibaldi, though, just sighs and says “He hates me.” Everyone’s trying to drive him crazy.

END

If anyone’s interested in picking up some of the next episodes, please say so in the comments. I’m going to be gone on vacation for the next two weeks, though I might get some write-ups done on the episodes before I leave if nobody else wants to.

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8 thoughts on “Babylon!

  1. In response to your encoded paragraph:

    V guvax gur erfcbarf bs Mbt jbexf ba nabgure yriry: Gvzr naq gvzr ntnva gur fubj erzvaqf hf gung orvat byqre qbrfa’g arprffnevyl zrna orvat jvfre. Gur Funqbj naq gur Ibeyba raq hc orvat pnfrf va cbvag. Gurl zvtug unir vaperqvoyl nqinaprq grpuabybtl, ohg gurl fgvyy qb fghcvq, irany guvatf. Naq V guvax gung gur nccnerag puvyqvfuarff bs gur Mbt va guvf rcvfbqr nyfb uvtuyvtug gung gurzr. Rira gubhtu V guvax lbhe cbvag vf jryy gnxra. V pbhyq rnfvyl oryvrir gung Mbt guvaxf gur Ibeybaf gb or wrexf, naq gung gur lbhatre enprf jvyy arrq gb or onvyrq bhg.

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  2. I really love this show and we just happened to rewatch through Season 4. JMS loves writing speeches, whether they are noble or malevolent. The show has a streak of melodrama in it from top to bottom, and the over-the-topness of the fascist cabal in EarthGov is just one aspect of that.

    The actress playing Masante in this episode deserves a lot of credit for committing to the part – I got the sense that Masante believed every word, even when moments later, she admitted she was lying.

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    • I was curious about the actress, so I looked around a bit. Julie Musante was played by Shari Shattuck, who spent some years after this on a soap opera, then disappeared from Hollywood after she hit 40. She has a new movie out (she stars in it, but the movie looks straight-to-DVD) this year, her first IMDB role in 14 years.

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  3. I agree with you about the speeches, JMS has a tendency to send his villains a memo saying “you’re a villain, here are the villainous things you are going to do”.

    Still, he made back a lot of points for me with the conversation between Sheridan and Masante. Because Masante’s line about “reframing the problem to solve it” is the finest quality BS. Because, yes, reframing a problem is often a useful way of considering new solutions, but that is exactly the opposite of what Masante is doing, which is to deny the existence of a problem by framing it away. That line is simultaneously true and a lie.

    But still, she gives every sign of being sincere, JMS paints a portrait of someone who has lost their epistemology – who no longer understands the difference between symbols and the reality they symbolise. He also shows just how useful such people can be to a nascent totalitarian.

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