Thursday, December 6, 2018

I Am Become a Name: Babylon 5, "The Parliament of Dreams" (season 1, episode 5)

Previously on Babylon 5...

Tonight, on an all-new episode: a week-long religious festival onboard the station spells danger for one of the ambassadors!

***** 

Here we are again, dredging through the swampy early episodes of Babylon 5 in the hopes of finding submerged treasure of some sort.
  
This week:
  
  
  
  
(season 1, episode 5)
  
airdate:  February 23, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Jim Johnston
  
  
No point in burying the lede: this is a rather terrible episode.  It's got its moments; but mostly, this is poorly-produced dreck.
  
I feel bad for saying that.  After all, I am a fan of the series.  And, heck, I personally don't mind this episode all that much; it's similar to the past handful in that regard.  It's also similar to them in that the idea of sitting an uninitiated viewer down and showing this to them makes my skin crawl.  It's yet another episode where the only real way to enjoy it might be to pretend you're watching the more handsomely produced reboot which has yet to actually happen.
  
Anyways, the plot of this episode is that Earth Central has come up with a corker of an idea: they've sponsored a week-long celebration of religious expression wherein the various races comprising Babylon 5 are encouraged to hold ceremonies showcasing the dominant systems of faith on their homeworlds.  What could go wrong?
  
Actually, as far as that side of the plot goes, nothing much does go wrong.  In and of itself, this is kind of a charming idea.  Interwoven with the several ceremonies we see are two subplots: Ambassador G'Kar attempts to thwart an assassination attempt sponsored by an old rival who has just died; and Jeff strikes up a renewed romance with an old flame who visits the station on business.
  
All of this is fine on paper.  But (and take a shot if you've heard me say this before) boy is the staging problematic.  I mean, look; by now, I guess we know that Babylon 5 appears to be filmed inside a shanty somebody built in one corner of an abandoned fairgrounds near the hobo village and the meth-cook kiosks.  What's worse, the primary construction materials they seem to have had at their disposal were cardboard and roach shells.  Many of the costume designs seem perhaps to be sketched by work-release interns whose buying habits consisted of the Goodwill closest to the United Nations building.  Compounding these issues is the problem of creator/screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski steadfastly refusing to believe any of that was either an issue or a problem, and opting to press full steam ahead and even ramp up his ambitions with each passing episode.
  
The end result is a combined feeling of impressed dismay; you can't believe anyone would try this series on the budget available to them, but you kind of have to applaud their willingness to try.
  
And my steadfast belief is that somewhere down the line -- later this season at some point, I'd argue, though not all would agree with me on that count -- it begins to actually pay off.  The production ability to meet the ambitions never quite manifests fully, but the story does eventually become compelling enough that many of the hey-but-this-is-shite realities recede into ... not nothingness by a long shot, but into what might safely be called the distance.
  
It's tough getting there, though.  Truly.  Don't think I don't know it.  A great deal of "The Parliament of Dreams" makes me cringe.  Let's run through some of that now.

  
I believe this is the first Drazi to show up on the series.  The Drazi never turn into THAT major an alien race, but they are a recurring folk throughout the remaining seasons.  This scene sucks nards, though.  Garibaldi refuses to let this Drazi guy bring a ceremonial dagger onboard because it would be a violation of the station's weapons policy.  He's kind of a dick about it, though, and the Drazi guy's beliefs are kind of turned into comic relief.  Not a great look for the episode considering its overall themes and intent.

I love Andreas Katsulas.  Not in this episode.  He's playing his role here for comic relief by exaggerating his fearful reactions to learning he has been marked for death.  I don't think it works at all; your mileage may vary, of course.  The series is still in the process of making us comfortable with G'Kar being a villain, and an argument could possibly be made that this episode makes him both more villainous (by hinting at a dark and shady past) and more sympathetic (by showing him as being somewhat heroic in his attempts to protect both the Narn people and his own skin).  In other words, even though it takes the ambassador farther down the road of being a stereotypical television Bad Guy, it also makes him more of an individual.  Maybe the episode sucking even helps that agenda somewhat.  Not sure I believe it; but the argument could be made, I'll admit.


The worst material in the episode by far has got to be the Centauri celebration, which is everything you hate about the Centauri dialed up to 11.  Will Peter Jurasik holler a lot?  Oh, most definitely.  Is it all a vaguely Roman-looking bacchanalia which seems to have been put on for $12 and a bag of dried pickles?  Yep.

Maddeningly, there are good ideas behind it.
  
Here's what's actually going on: the Centauri are a faded glory of a republic whose prominent members are grasping at straws to try to preserve -- both for outsiders and for themselves -- the illusion that they are still a powerful, dominant, influential race.  They aren't; they've sunk into literal decadence.  Witness this "religious" celebration for proof.  It's not religious so much as it is a festival commemorating the triumph of the Centauri people over the Xon in the distant past.  The Centauri and the Xon were two races of people who evolved along separate tracks on the same planet and, naturally, came into contention with one another.  The Centauri prevailed, and literally wiped the Xon out of existence.  And started a festival to commemorate the occasion!  It's as if Christmas was all about how we'd successfully murdered all the dinosaurs.
  
There's some interesting stuff there.  Little, if any, of it says anything good about the Centauri.  One knows in one's gut that the Xon weren't the aggressors, the Centauri were.  Or, if the Centauri weren't the aggressors, they learned how to be from the Xon and then later applied the skills they picked up to their dealings with races like, oh, the Narn.
  
All of these ideas are floating around underneath the surface of this scene, but it's so appallingly cheap to look at and so annoyingly performed that it's difficult to maintain any sort of mental focus on these positive aspects.
  
BUT...
  
But they are there, I think.  You've just got to really work for them.  It might help to simply adopt all the negatives as proof of how shite the Centauri are.  Is Londo being an incredibly annoying drunk sack of crap here?  Well, that's because Londo IS an incredibly annoying drunk sack of crap even under ideal circumstances.  And remember, he's recently come out on the bad end of a love affair that has seemingly caused him to retrench a bit; which, for him, means continuing to play his "washed-up old republican" routine.
  
In this sense, the galling performance Peter Jurasik gives here might well be said to not merely reinforce certain story points that have already been told, but help to set up additional story points which will develop as this season (and the overall series) progresses.  You can even say that by observing the way Vir behaves here, you get an even fuller version of things.
  
So is it a bad scene?  Oh lord yes.  But is it empty?  I'd argue not.




Delenn is obviously disconcerted by all of this.  And pay attention to how seriously Mira Furlan behaves.  It might have been easy for her to play it for laughs, the way she played the scene at the end of "Midnight on the Firing Line" when Garibaldi is showing her cartoons and feeding her popcorn.  This is not that.  Here, I think Delenn is probably fully aware of the subtext; she knows who the Centauri are as a people, and she finds them to be sickening.


An amusing moment comes when Londo grabs a statue of the goddess of passion and literally kisses its ass for a moment.  This is more honestly crass than one normally saw on 1994 television, and it's kind of shocking.  Londo is arguably performing mock analingus upon one of his people's deities.  Londo is not a great guy.



The G'Kar-is-suspicious-of-everyone subplot has its moments.  We meet a new character this week: Na'Toth, the ambassador's new aide.  she's played by Julie Caitlin Brown, who follows the lead of Andreas Katsulas somewhat in playing to the back rows.
  
She replaces the character of Ko'Dath, who appeared in "Born to the Purple."  Mary Woronov appeared in only that one episode, and evidently was incapable of coping with the makeup, so she bowed out of the series and Ko'Dath was replaced with Na'Toth.  THEN the original actress cast as Na'Toth couldn't handle it, and Julie Caitlin Brown was brought in at literally the last minute.
  
Here, we learn tha Ko'Dath was evidently the victim of an airlock "malfunction."  Given the death threat, G'Kar wonder is Na'Toth might not have set that up so as to get closer to him.




  
  
Na'Toth is not the only ambassadorial aide introduced in "The Parliament of Dreams."  We also meet Lennier, Delenn's wet-behind-the-ears aide.  He's played by Bill Mumy, former child star of Lost In Space.  Mumy is alright; but he's (and Lennier's) like Vir and Stephen Furst in that they are not my favorite element of this series by any stretch of the imagination.



That dude to Delenn's left: actual African or actual hipster?  You be the judge.


This guy: actual uplifted bullfrog or actual terrible design idea?  You be the judge.
  
   
There is some stuff in the episode I like reasonably well, though.  Most of it involves delving into spoilery territory, some of it so incredibly hot to the touch that I'm going to try to say as little as possible in the way of specifics lest plot points from deep into the series be ruined.
  
But I can't swear I'll be successful, so if you don't want to know, now's the time to skip all the way to the end and see how many stars I gave this one.  Not many.
  
One of the major plot elements of the episode is the introduction of Catherine Sakai, played by Julia Nickson.  She's an on-again/off-again old flame of Sinclair's; they keep crashing into each other every few years, never quite managing to get it right.  So, naturally, when she comes aboard the station to conduct some business, they bump into each other and ... well ... you know how these things go.


  

"Don't touch me unless you mean it," says Catherine.  Is this embarrassing or hot?  I truly don't know.


  
  
Catherine is played by Julia Nickson, who was also in an episode of Deep Space Nine about a week and a half prior to this episode of Babylon 5.  I like her; I can't honestly say she's all that great an actor, but neither am I saying she's bad.  On these early episodes of Babylon 5, it's kind of all relative, anyways.
  
She and Michael O'Hare either have decent chemistry or they have none whatsoever.  And I know I should probably be able to pin that down a little narrower, but hey.  Sorry.  the fact is, I like their relationship, regardless of whether the actors have chemistry; so maybe that's clouding my judgment a bit.
  
In any case, Catherine is a replacement for a similar character (Carolyn Sykes) who had appeared in "The Gathering."  I assume the intent was for that character to continue, and that the actress (Blaire Baron) who played her opted out.  Either way, Carolyn is name-checked here; Sinclair reveals that they busted up about a year previously, after he declined to quit his command and go into business with her.  That's a nice nod toward continuity, which is always appreciated.
  
As always, I kind of find myself engaging with the parts of season one that I like by imagining what Straczynski's long-term plans might have been.  This isn't the only time we'll see Sakai; she'll only be in a handful of episodes, and she'll exit when Sinclair exits, but she does seem to be introduced here as a major long-term player.  I suspect I know what her function would have ended up being; and I suspect that those attributes were transferred to another character.  All of which makes her more interesting to me by far in this episode; but since that's a thing happening in my mind and (arguably) NOT in the episode, it's kind of a bust in the big picture.
  
I want to focus for a bit on a scene that spins out of one of the Jeff/Catherine scenes.  The two of them are at dinner, having a conversation about how they keep repeating the same patterns.  They're both trying to resist, but are seemingly incapable of actually resisting.  They recognize it at about the same time, and share a laugh over it.  Catherine sobers after that.  "I see such trouble," she says, somewhat mournfully.
  
There is then an interesting edit.  We cut to a different scene, presumably on a different day; we are now at the Minbari religious ceremony, which is being attended by Sinclair and his senior officers, plus Londo, G'Kar, Vir, and various aliens we don't know.  Interestingly, the audio for this scene begins before we actually cut away from Sinclair and Sakai.  As we are still with them, we hear Delenn speak these words: "Will you follow me into fire?"  She is, we will later (and I don't mean in this episode) learn, quoting one of her people's leaders from the time of the formation of the Grey Council, in the distant past.  
  
Let's check out the full speech, via screencaps.


Catherine, laughing: "Oh God, I can't believe I'm going through all this with you again."  Jeff: "Neither can I."

Catherine, no longer laughing: "I see such trouble."  Delenn, offscreen, in the future a bit: "Will you follow me into fire?

"Into storms?  Into darkness?  Into death...?

"And the Nine said, 'yes.'  Then do this, in testimony to the One who will follow; who will bring death couched in the promise of new life, and renewal disguised as defeat."  Delenn takes from Lennier a small piece of fruit from a bowl, and a musician begins to play (rather cheesy) music.  Lennier begins passing the fruits to the assembled onlookers.

Delenn continues.  "From birth through death and renewal, you must put aside old things, old fears; old lives.  This is your death; the death of flesh; the death of pain; the death of yesterday."  She stands, addresses the onlookers in general, who are holding these small red symbols of the death she has just promised them; the renewal she has just promised them.  "Taste of it," she exhorts them, now seeming to address Sinclair individually, "and be not afraid, for I am with you til the end of time."

Sinclair glances -- somewhat nervously -- over at Garibaldi, who opts out of eating the fruit.

"Taste of it," says Delenn, unquestionably now speaking directly to Sinclair.  An odd tone is in her voice.







"And so," says Delenn with great import, "it begins."


Unless you're a dolt, you probably figure something has just happened.  If you've been watching the series all along, and have zero knowledge of anything coming down the pike, I think this still holds true.  You might recall the slight undertones of attraction between these two in "Soul Hunter," which may themselves have caused you to remember some of their conversations in "The Gathering."

Later, Jeff describes the ceremony to Catherine, who gets an amused look on her face.  "Was there a serious exchange of looks?" she asks.  Sinclair says that's an affirmative; it was a rebirth ceremony.  "Oh, it's a rebirth ceremony, alright," says Catherine.  "It also doubles a marriage ceremony.  Depending on how seriously anyone took it, somebody got married the other day."








Huh.

Spoiler alert: this never plays out.  Not with Sinclair, at least.  But I'm convinced that it would have if Michael O'Hare had not left the series.  Zero doubt in my mind.  And knowing some of the rest of the story, this scene really gives me the chills, man.  The production is iffy, sure.  But Mira Furlan is great here, and there's some top-notch foreshadowing happening beneath the surface.

It's a lousy episode, but this one scene damn near redeems it, at least for me, at least as regards the series overall.  And that's what makes these early episodes of the series so dadgum frustrating; they're shabby stuff, but strewn amongst them are moments of grandeur, some of which are disguised as rocks when they are in fact nuggets of gold.

Three more things I want to touch on before calling this post quits.  Let's begin with G'Kar, who mostly sucks in this episode, but who also gets to be a part of some heavy-duty foreshadowing his own self.




The resolution to the assassination subplot is more than a bit lame, but hidden within it is one plot point that I find compelling.

The assassin has fitted G'Kar with pain-giver devices, and is under orders to make sure that plenty of pain is given before the end arrives.




And so, pain is indeed doles out.  But the assassin is a bit confused by G'Kar's seeming unwillingness to cry out from the pain.  that would make things ever so much more satisfying, so why not let that pain have a voice?

"I would rather die than give you that satisfaction," breathes G'Kar.  That assassin doesn't know how many gravities the ambassador withstood in "The Gethering" when Delenn wielded a gravity ring against him and nearly liquefied his innards.  He didn't cry out then, either.




Spoiler alert: this won't be the final time G'Kar is in a position like this.

Spoiler alert: he will eventually cry out.  But it will take some real effort.  No mere assassin is capable of it.  We'll have to wait a while to find out who is.
  
The last two topics I want to hit are Sinclair-specific.  The first isn't any huge deal, just a short scene in which Sinclair sits in his quarters listening to a reading of Tennyson's "Ulysses."




He'll be interrupted by Catherine, but before she arrives, we'll hear a bit of the reading:

I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers
  
Sinclair, we find out, is a bit obsessed with Tennyson, and has been for years; it's a bit of a joke with Catherine.

That's all we hear of the poem, but I'd like to add on a bit more, some of which puts me deeply in mind of who Sinclair is as a character.  We are seeing the final stanza of the poem now:

         There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Rather a good poem, that.  Babylon 5 doesn't quite rise to meet it, of course.  But there's something there; there are specific moments from specific episodes (not all of them Sinclair-centric) that spring to mind for me reading those lines.

Speaking of poetry, let's briefly check out the final scene for a bit of it in televisual form.  I'm not sure if it's good poetry or not; but it's an honest and perhaps a rather touching attempt.

Sinclair has been fretting over how he, as Earth Central's duly appointed representative, is going to come up with a ceremony to represent Earth's dominant belief system.  What he settles on is this:




He has invited a representative of every Earth religion under the sun to the station, and has them stand in a long line -- the shot continues well past where that screencap ends -- one beside the other, and then he walks with the ambassadors and assorted dignitaries down the line, introducing them by name and by faith one at a time.

On one hand, it doesn't work.  It's basically a collection of stereotypes in a lineup.  But even so, it's the sort of big-gesture flashing-neon-MESSAGE moment that I kind of get a kick out of from my sci-fi television.  This is a Roddenberrian approach; it's not a Roddenberrian philosophy, exactly (though the first guy introduced is introduced as an atheist), but I think Gene would have gotten a kick out of it.

I kind of do, too.

And with that, we've reached the end of another episode.  Many more to come.  Even, believe it or not, some better ones than this!
 
Bryant's rating:  **/*****

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