Monday, January 21, 2019

What Do You Want?: Babylon 5, "Signs and Portents" (season 1, episode 13)

Previously, on Babylon 5...

Tonight, on an exciting new episode: when the raiders begin causing worse problems than normal, Londo's delivery of a priceless Centauri artifact to its intended recipient becomes exponentially more difficult.  Meanwhile, a mysterious visitor comes to the station seeking the answer to an important question.

(season 1, episode 13)
airdate: May 18, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Janet Greek

You really want to know what I want?  You really want to know the truth?  
I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy.  I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again and command the stars!  I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power; I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment, afraid to look back or to look forward.  I want us to be what we used to be!  I want... 
I want it all back, the way that it was!  
Does that answer your question?

This monologue is delivered by Londo Mollari, and it is delivered to a mysterious man who has come aboard the station to ask him a simple question: what do you want?

In that moment, the story of Babylon 5 changes forever, though it may not be immediately apparent to those watching the series for the first time.  It certainly isn't apparent to those fictional characters who are living it.

In revisiting the episode for the first time in some fifteen years, I find my own question springing forth: does this work?

The answer is murkier.  I think it's a little bit of a no mixed with a little bit of a yes, which blends together into a "depends on your mood."  I'm a little surprised to find myself rendering THAT as the verdict; traditionally, this has been a big episode for me.  It's more important to the overall story than it is a satisfying episode in and of itself, granted; but that's fine, because we're only a bit more than halfway through the introductory season of a five-season series that truly was intended to function a bit like a novel.  We're still very much in the getting-to-know-you phase of the game, so an episode that serves as the introduction of a new plot element isn't a problematic idea.

To be clear, I do still like the episode; it's got virtues.  It's also got most of the same problems I've been whinging about for a while now.  Some of them won't go away for a while; some of them will never go away.  I should probably stop mentioning them.

I had not counted on finding myself resisting the big concept for this episode, however.  That's a new thing.  I'm going to be unable to talk about it without going into spoiler mode, so if you were merely curious as to how I felt about this episode overall, here's what I've got for you:

Bryant's rating:  *** 1/2 / *****

Beyond that, I'm not much interested in non-spoilery talk, so if you're averse to getting spoiled, now's the time for you to jump ship.

Still with me?

Alright, let's talk about Morden, the mysterious visitor to the station.

He is introduced as a man who walks alone.  This is not precisely the case, but it's how we are introduced to him.  Who is he?  We don't know.  He appears to be a businessman of some sort, but all we find out about him in this episode is that he has been out on the Rim (of the galaxy, one assumes) for several years.  Asked if he found anything interesting while there, he answers that he did.  So is he an archaeologist, one like Dr. Franklin's shady friend Vance who, in "Infection," was doing work on behalf of Interplanetary Expeditions?

Not a bad guess.  Not entirely accurate; perhaps not entirely inaccurate, either.  But a good enough guess.

Whoever he is, he seems to have friends in very high places.  He is able to obtain private meetings with three of Babylon 5's most prominent ambassadors (G'Kar, Delenn, and Londo).  This would be be an easy thing to arrange, I imagine, especially given his intentions: to ask each of them what they want.

How would one go about arranging this?  My assumption is that Morden presents himself as a representative of some sort of logistics outfit.  I'm sure there are other people within this organization, some of which might be non-humans (although that is by no means certain).  This would likely mean they have representatives who reached out to -- meaning "bribed," one imagines -- the sort of people within the Narn, Minbari, and Centauri governments who would be able to schedule face time with the respective ambassadors.  This must mean the organization has credentials and achievements of some sort; they must be at least semi-legitimate.

In order to discuss what sort of people Morden actually works for, let's dip our toes briefly into another aspect of "Signs and Portents."

The guy with Londo is Lord Kiro, a Centauri nobleman; the woman is Ladira, Kiro's aunt, a seer and prophet.  We've already encountered the notion of the Centauri sometimes possessing a form of second sight; we know from Londo that some members of his race can foresee their own deaths.  We'll table discussion of whether this is a good idea for a science-fiction series set in a quasi-realistic future; I'm not sure it is, but for the moment, let's simply accept it.

Kiro says of Ladira at some point in the episode that she is not particularly trustworthy when it comes to her visions.  Sometimes they do come true, but sometimes they miss the mark by a wide margin.  For example, he says that when he was a very young man, Ladira prophesied that he would one day be killed by shadows.  Ha!  What a silly cow.

Here is how we see Morden at a certain point later in the episode:

At other times, too, he will be glimpsed within pools of darkness.  And there's a reason for this: though he himself is human, he is working as a silent emissary on behalf of a very powerful and ancient race of aliens known as the Shadows.

We do not learn that in this episode, however.  If one fails to pick up on the fact that Morden is visually associated with shadows and darkness, one might well think Ladira's prophecy about Lord Kiro's death is pure crazy-woman bunk.  Her prophecy takes on a hint of urgency, though, after Kiro has seemingly been kidnapped by raiders (it's actually a ruse of which he is a part).  "The shadows have come for Lord Kiro," she tells Londo; "the shadows have come for us all."

This takes place during an attack on the station by the raiders, and I'd guess a lot of audience members perhaps think that these "shadows" Ladira is referring to might be the raiders, and that Morden is tied up with them somehow.  Again, a reasonable guess.

The episode never fully disabuses us of this notion, but a couple of big hints come toward the end, signifying that these "shadows" might be something altogether more worrisome.  Ladira, as she is about to speak with Sinclair, senses Kiro's death; this comes via his ship being destroyed -- literally carved into pieces -- by a spidery-looking alien vessel that literally appears out of nowhere.

These are the shadows.  Or, rather, the Shadows.  They are (arguably) the major antagonists of Babylon 5, and they have now made their initial appearance.  If you think of Babylon 5 in terms of Tolkien, the Shadows are equivalent to Sauron; just as Sauron has been absent from Middle Earth for a lengthy period of time but is making his fell return as The Lord of the Rings commences, so too are the Shadows creeping their way back into the galaxy.  This is a huge component of what Babylon 5 is about.

Morden's visiting  the station on their behalf is a sort of scouting trip.  The Shadows intend to bring war and destruction on a major scale, and they have sent Morden to try to find an effective means of doing so.  Might the agendas of the various ambassadors on Babylon 5 prove to be useful in furthering this goal?  There could be no better way of finding out that by ascertaining what those individuals truly want.

It occurred to me watching the episode this time that that is a daffy idea.  And it kind of broke my heart a little bit when I realized it.

Let me immediately clarify: the overall story of the Shadows (by which I mean the overall story of Babylon 5) is mostly pretty great.  Is it Tolkien?  Well ... no.  Not even close.  But it's high-quality in its own right.

This "what do you want?" business, though, is daffy.  It's essentially nineties-television shorthand designed to permit as much of this massive story idea to play out within the confines of (and within the setting of) the series as is possible.  By which I mean, it is a ruse to allow the story to develop using the characters who are part of the regular cast of Babylon 5.  In "reality," it makes sense that the Shadows would wish to play the (to them) lesser races against one another, given their big-picture agenda.  It makes a lot less sense to me that their sole evident means of accomplishing this would hinge entirely upon the ambassadors stationed at a single space station.  Worse, that THAT would hinge upon one guy asking a single question of these ambassadors.  If all of them simply answered with some variation of, "Um, I want you to go away now because you are being weird and I want you not to be here in front of me any longer," would the Shadows simply abandon their entire plan for another thousand years or whatever?  Surely there's more to this.

More questions come to mind almost immediately, such as: is some other guy like Morden doing some version of this in every place where the most powerful races have ambassadors?  If so, are they all going to get together and compare notes and figure out who's got the most useful want?  If not, why THIS place?  Do they not know there's a Vorlon there?  Do they not know the Minbari ambassador is likely to see Morden for what he is?  Why take that risk?  Are none of the non-aligned worlds worth considering as potentially useful pawns?

It might be that there are reasonable answers to all of those questions.  But I had a hard time feeling that during this viewing.  Instead, it feels like I'm being asked to accept a certain amount of television-level hooey.

Which is exactly the case!  And I guess I kind of know that I'm viewing the series with a 2019 mindset rather than a 1994 mindset.  It can't be helped, and shouldn't be helped; stories do not remain frozen in time, they age just like people do.  Sometimes, they die; sometimes, they can't remain vital due to the nature of the medium around them changing, bringing changed expectations in its wake.  A 1994 vantage point would indeed be more accepting of the idea that it ends up being Londo upon whom the secretive run-up to the Shadow War hinges.  He, after all, is in the opening credits.  It might not be realistic that that is how the Shadows would make their decisions, but hey, television.

If I lower my standards back to that level, I immediately begin accepting it again.  Because things have been building to this with Londo.  From the pilot movie on, we've been shown that Londo is a bitter and dreamy old patriot whose own squalid latter years seem to be serving as an apt metaphor for the squalid latter era of his once-powerful people.  The Centauri have fallen into bitter dreams as a species; they've got just enough self-awareness to feel it happening and to be mournful enough to rage against it.

This, of course, could lead to some truly awful decisions.  If presented what seem like solid opportunities to reverse their fortunes, might not the Centauri people sink to any manner of lowness to raise themselves up again?  (I get little chills every time Londo or Kiro or whoever says something that verges on the notion of making their people great again.  It's never phrased in quite that way, and I myself do not wish to bring real-world politics into this discussion.  But there are parallels of a sort, and the great real-world fear I have is that my own people might well prove to be no wiser than the Centauri.  "I  want us to be what we used to be!" Londo tells Morden in what amounts to an aggressive plea.  I feel as if I could go to any number of rallies and hear people who look a lot like me say much the same thing, and if a Morden were to appear before them and ask them what they want, what might the ultimate result of that end up being?)

We will explore that via much of the rest of the series, and we will do so directly via Londo Mollari and the poor decisions he himself will end up making.  All of this implausible "what do you want?" business with Morden is designed to press the start button on that process.  In episodes like "Born to the Purple," Londo was getting into the car; Morden has now slipped behind the wheel and has turned the key.

But it's not just Londo that Morden visits, of course.

"What I want is for you to go away and leave me in peace," answers G'Kar, who is obviously annoyed by the entire scenario.

"As you say," replies Morden, who begins to do just that.

"Wait!" calls G'Kar just as he is about to leave.  "What do I want...?  The Centauri stripped my world.  I want justice."  One gets the sense that G'Kar has no expectations of this encounter; he is simply taking an opportunity to speak the full truth for once.  What harm can it do to say such a thing to a nobody like Morden?
"But what do you want?"

"To suck the marrow from their bones and grind their skulls to powder," G'Kar expounds, getting into it now.

"What do you want?"

"To tear down their cities and blacken their sky, sow their ground with salt!" says G'Kar passionately.  "To completely, utterly erase them!"

"And then what?"

G'Kar is stopped short by this.  "I don't know," he confesses with some surprise; the idea of there being something after that has perhaps never occurred to him.  "As long as my homeworld's safety is guaranteed, I don't know that it matters."

But it does matter.  It matters a great deal to the Shadows.  And so, even though it requires a perspective on the full series to get this, a great test of sorts has been passed by G'Kar in this moment.  Or, depending on one's perspective, perhaps the test has been failed.

After this (and before his meeting with Londo), Morden will have a brief audience with Delenn as well.

"The question is its own purpose," Morden replies to Delenn's request for clarification as to the intent behind his visit.  "What do you want?"

Delenn feels a pain of sorts in her forehead.

Her back is to Morden when this happens.  She turns to look at him.

The room seems to darken.


Delenn seemingly knows something about who and what Morden truly is.  She demands that he leave, and he does; she says to herself, "They're here."

I won't go into details, but you'll be unsurprised to learn that the Minbari are aware of the existence of the Shadows.  If we can return to a comparison with Tolkien, the Minbari are not unlike the Elves of this story.  They know the Shadows exist; they have, in fact, fought them before.  Not recently; it was in the distant past, but the Minbari know the Shadows may come again, and much of their society is built upon preparedness for such an eventuality.

With that in mind, does it make sense that the Shadows would send Morden to a Minbari ambassador?  Surely they must know the Minbari people from their previous encounters.  Isn't this counter-productive?

On the face of things, it sure seems so.  It seems like the kind of thing one would do on a television series to as to drop a hint or two about things to keep the audience involved.

I'm not sure that's the entirety of it, though.  I'm not sure the Shadows have ANY interest in working entirely behind the scenes.  They want full-blown war; allowing one of the few worlds capable of engaging them in that way -- which might actually be overstating things, but let's press on -- a bit of lead time to prepare may actually further their true goals.  So this may be a deliberate and purposeful act on Morden's part.  I wouldn't rule it out.

Speaking of the Minbari, by the way...

One of this episode's subplots that I've not mentioned yet involves Sinclair bringing Garibaldi into the loop regarding his recovered memories of the Battle of the Line.  He tells Garibaldi what he knows and asks the security man to find out anything he can find out to shed light on the whole thing.  Garibaldi does some (off-camera) digging, and learns that Sinclair was not in any way in what one might call "the running" for the command of Babylon 5.  Dozens of career-military officers were in line ahead of him, and all of them wanted the posting.  Badly.

However, as the first alien race to support the construction of the station, the Minbari had been granted a concession by Earth's government: the right of approval over who would be the station's commander.  In the end, Sinclair was, in essence, appointed by Minbar.

This, of course, is intriguing.  And it shines a new light on the efforts of those black-ops guys in "And the Sky Full of Stars" to find out what happened to Sinclair during the Battle of the Line.  Given that those guys seem to have been mixed up with some of the isolationist turmoil that is sweeping Earth, we can now see some of the disparate ongoing subplots of the series beginning to weave together.  This stuff is all tied in.  And THAT might make us reflect somewhat on something Lord Kiro says to Londo during this episode: "Ambassador," he says, "you must know that things are changing back home."  Sinclair has said this about Earth a few times, too, hasn't he?

Hmm.  The humans and the Centauri have entirely different cultural trajectories, but they seem to have similar problems nonetheless.  Interesting.  Well, I'm sure it's just a coincidence...

Moving on, I wonder why Morden didn't pay Sinclair a visit?  I'm sure that's also just a coincidence.  Either that, or the Shadows have asked some other human in some other place what he wants; if so, I suspect a useful answer has already been given.

But hey...

There's one other primary ambassador on the station, isn't there?  Don't the Vorlons have an Ambassador Kosh onboard Babylon 5?

They certainly do.  No need to meet with him, though; the Shadows already know where the Vorlons stand.  We learn nothing about that this episode, nor will I go into it now (I'm not giving everything up!).  But this happens:

Morden is stalking down some corridor somewhere, when he suddenly senses a presence.

Seemingly not intimidated -- did this guy not see what the Vorlons did to Jha'dur at the end of "Deathwalker"? -- Morden turns to face Kosh.

"Leave this place," commands Kosh.  "They are not for you."

"Go.  Leave.  Now."
Morden continues to be unmoved by Kosh's warnings, and he begins walking toward the Vorlon as we cut away.

This is occurring during the raider attack on the station, and we never cut back to the the Morden/Kosh dustup.  However, toward the end of the episode, as Garibaldi is briefing Sinclair on the extent of the damage the station received, we find out something interesting: Kosh's encounter suit has been damaged, and he has asked for some tools to repair it.  Garibaldi tosses this line aside as though it were just an interesting piece of random weirdness; Sinclair seemingly takes it that way.
Most audience members likely assign more significance to it, however.  As well they should.  We've not seen the full range of the Vorlons' powers, but in the aforementioned climax of "Deathwalker," we definitely got the hint that they are very powerful indeed, and also place themselves in a lofty authoritative position when they feel moved to do so.
Morden seems like the kind of guy who knows things, so for him to be utterly uncowed by a Vorlon in a dark alley probably ought to tell us something.  Something ominous.
And speaking of ominous, how about the vision Ladira shares with Sinclair at the end?  She's been speaking all episode about how she is seeing the station's destruction, and she is able to pass it along to Sinclair with a bit of effort:

Sinclair is shaken, although you might not be able to tell it from Michael O'Hare's performance.  (He's not at his best in this episode, sad to say.)
It's a big sequence, full of effects.  The explosion looks quite nice, and indeed, the effects throughout this episode are strong.  The raider attack is exciting, and there's some cool Starfury action.  If half the effects budget for the season had been blown on this one episode, I wouldn't be surprised.
But forget that for a second: Ladira has shown Sinclair a vision of the destruction of Babylon 5.  She tells him that this is simply one possible future.  And perhaps it is.  My lips are sealed on this count.
Let's discuss a few other things via screencap:

I haven't yet mentioned that a big part of the plot revolves around Londo's having just received a priceless Centauri artifact called "the Eye."  This is a centuries-old jewel that had been lost in a battle some time ago.  The Centauri government commissioned some Earth group -- unclear whom, but my assumption is Interplanetary Expeditions -- to find and retrieve it; according to Londo, they paid enough for this to buy a small planet.  The courier has brought the Eye to Londo, who will in turn hand it over to Lord Kiro upon his arrival; Kiro will then transport it to the homeworld.

I kind of hate this scene.  After he has possession of the Eye, Londo is trying to get on an elevator.  G'Kar walks up, also in need of an elevator.  They proceed to get into a loud argument while this poor sap is standing between them.

The idea of the scene, perhaps, is to simply perpetuate the strife between these two species (via these two men).  It's relatively well-played by both Jurasik and Katsulas, but I find the staging to be a bit awkward, and it all comes to a jokey resolution that doesn't work for me.

And yet ... the pettiness of the scene, the awkward jokiness of the scene, arguably serves as an effective ironic reflection of the true nature of the episode's events.  Something truly monumental in significance happens during "Signs and Portents," and to some degree it is created via the petty squabbling that continually occurs between these two men.  Which is, of course, a reflection of the considerable less petty (but violent) relationship between the two worlds.  That relationship will get a great deal worse during this episode, but nobody will know about it for a while.

Ladira isn't my favorite.  Also, she should have been named something else; her name is too close to "Adira" (Londo's dancing-girl paramour in "Born to the Purple") for my tastes.

On the commentary track for the episode, JMS laments that if one Centauri on the whole series had shittier hair than Londo, it was Lord Kiro.  The hair thing was kind of an accident, as Straczynski tells it; it's a thing I kind of got used to eventually.  I mean, hey, aliens.

This guy is awful.  He's one of the raiders, and he's onboard the station so he can kickstart a plot to hijack the Eye.

The Eye is not an especially impressive prop.  I could make an argument that this works FOR the episode, though: it makes the Centauri obsession with the Eye seem all the more pathetic.

Kiro has a plan: he wants to keep the Eye for himself, and use its glory to propel himself into the position of Emperor.  He feels the current Emperor is doing rather a shite job, and thinks that if he is able to step forward with such a symbol as the Eye, he can begin the process of restoring the Centauri people to their rightful place of glory.

Londo indicates that this is perhaps not the wisest idea.

I like Ivanova's red Star, which is also painted on her Starfury.

If you think Gerrit Graham is doing a lousy job of acting here as Kiro, you're right, but maybe not in the way you think.  Kiro is actually working with the raiders (who are helping him to steal the Eye), so Kiro himself is the one delivering the poor performance.  Graham, by the way, would later go on to play the Q who wants to be allowed to kill himself in a strong episode of Star Trek: Voyager.


I've not mentioned her before, but this is Marianne Robertson, who plays an unnamed Earthforce officer in CNC during the entire first season.

And this is Josh Coxx playing another.  He eventually gets a name, though -- David Corwin -- and will be on the rest of the series in a minor but consistent capacity.

In the episode's final scene, Londo is once again visited by Morden, who comes bearing a gift ("from friends you don't even know you have," Morden tells him).

(I've not mentioned that Morden is played by Ed Wasser.  I like Wasser in the role; he's likeable enough that he wouldn't set anyone's alarms off, but he has enough menace that that aspect of the character comes through clearly.)

The Eye, which was onboard the raider ship destroyed by the Shadows.  Londo assumes that the Eye has been lost, and that this very costly loss will be blamed upon him; he expects to be removed from his ambassadorship within days.  Now, of course, he has been given a miracle by Morden.  He turns to thank the man, and finds...

...that he is gone.

Where will this go for Londo?  No place good.  I'm kind of excited about it; I don't remember the next step in that subplot's development, so I'm looking forward to rediscovering it.  I think it's in the season finale, but can't swear to it.

Either way, we'll find out soon enough.  Unfortunately, we've got to get through the rest of the season in order to do it, and my memory of some of these last episodes is that there are some real stinkers, beginning with the next one, "TKO," which is, I shit you not, about a mixed-martial-alien-arts competition on the station.

Depending on HOW shitty it and the next two after that end up being, I may well lump two of three of these into a single post.

Either way, be back in a week or so.

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