Monday, October 08, 2007

Babylon 5 - Season 5 (1998)

Babylon 5 - Season 5 (1998)

Babylon 5, the last best hope for peace. And victory, as it turned out in Season 4 when the Alliance created and led by Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) brought the Shadow War to an end and also defeated the fascist forces of President Clark and liberated the Earth. That season ended with the creation of the Interstellar Alliance and the prospect of trouble down the road by way of the Shadows' allies and also the possibility of conflict between telepaths and 'mundanes'. And trouble is indeed what our favourite Babylonians got in Season 5 of the epic sci-fi drama series.

Sheridan and Delenn (Mira Furlan) establish B5 as the temporary headquarters of the Alliance, with Sheridan as President and a new commander in place to run the station, Captain Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins). Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) returns to B5 and becomes the head of Covert Intelligence for the Alliance with his old friend Zack (Jeff Conoway) having taken over as the head of B5 Security. Dr Franklin (Richard Biggs) remains on the station as the chief medical officer. Londo (Peter Jurasik) remains as Centauri ambassador while also holding the post of Centauri Prime Minister. He begins to form a friendship with G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas), who winds up becoming his bodyguard. Notable by her absence is Susan Ivonova, who left the station following the death of Marcus Cole. Mopey Minbari Lennier (Bill Mumy) goes off to train as a Ranger so that he can stay away from Delenn, for whom he has strong feelings. Super telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) has a significant presence in this season when she gets caught up in the telepath conflict. And finally, of course, there's Vir Coto (Stephen Furst), who continues to bungle around with the best of intentions.

The main story threads in the fifth season involve the formation and development of the fragile Alliance, the conflict between 'rogue' telepaths and the Psi Corps, and the influence of Shadow allies on Centarui Prime, who attempt to drive the Alliance to war. After the events of the preceding four years, the first half of Season 5 was on slow burn, building up again from a new beginning. It was interesting in that it was so different, depicting the events following a major war where all the parties involved slowly pick up from where they left off, with all the idealistic notions they championed immediately after the war becoming distant memories as political realities reassert themselves. Still, interesting as it was the pacing was a bit slow, but then again the previous season was a hard act to follow. One of the biggest problems was the lack of a true central figure in the season - previously it has always been Sheridan, or before him Sinclair - with the central role being filled in by several characters depending on the episode. B5 needs a strong driving force, and without one it felt a little aimless.

Another issue I had was with the telepath war; it was great in theory, the concept of a class of people left disenfranchised and persecuted, but it dragged on for a bit too long and the rogue telepaths were a little too cheesy for my tastes, often coming across as overly broody goths. There was some very good stuff in there though, particularly the charismatic telepath leader Byron (Robin Atkin Downes) and his relationship with Lyta, which pays off in the latter half of the season. And then there's the major storyline involving the Centauri that starts off in the background and builds up to massive confrontations and a very satisfying and surprisingly dark conclusion (there are elements of this story that are not resolved till much later in the time line, though they were actually touched upon in earlier seasons!). The very last episode deserves a special mention - it was filmed at the culmination of Season 4 before the show was unexpectedly renewed for this a fifth and final season - as it is a terrific and moving conclusion that serves as a fitting farewell to the characters as they all gather together for one last time.

From a character point of view, many of the primary characters have been through a lot and are given less in terms of development. Sheridan and Delenn have a significant presence and their relationship is always dwelt on, but it's mostly business as usual for them. It's business as usual for Dr. Franklin and Zack as well. The primary characters who go through the most this season are Garibaldi, G'Kar, and Londo. Garibaldi deals with the effects of Bester's brainwashing by once again turning to alcohol, a storyline that is overplayed beyond belief and is dragged out for way too long. G'Kar and Londo initially make a light hearted duo who, despite all they've been through, become firm friends; their storyline and friendship becomes much more substantial as the season progresses and events involving the Centauri heat up. G'Kar also has to deal with his growing reputation as a religious figure following the unauthorized publication of his book. And then there's Lyta, the ultra powerful Vorlon modified telepath who, inspired by Byron's belief in freedom for telepaths, transforms from a meek doormat and finally asserts herself. The usually humble and sagely Lennier takes a dark and somewhat annoying turn as he becomes a brooding wanker who is upset that Delenn chose Sheridan over him. And finally there's newcomer Captain Lochley, whose presence is irritating mainly because she's always in a bad mood, but fortunately she doesn't show up all that often.

Season 5 falls somewhat short of the previous three (but is better than Season 1) due to the aforementioned problems with characters and storylines, but by most other measures it's on par. The stories avoid simplistic takes on their subject matter by acknowledging some of the complexities of reality, with corruption and immorality always present to counterbalance whatever decency and nobility is on display. The show, as always, embraces political realities and incorporates human foibles and weaknesses into its characters. And despite all the darkness, there's still a nice mix of humour and action thrown in together with the drama.

The production values are pretty much at the same level as before, so whatever I said for previous seasons still applies. They get the job done but aren't exactly mind blowing, and that trademark stagy, almost theatrical feel is always present. The effects seem more dynamic, even if they are still not entirely realistic. The acting is, as usual, a mixed bag, with the cast being solid overall with the usual great work from some actors like Katsulas and Jurasik, and some cringe inducing work from others, particularly guest stars and supporting players like Furst and Tallman. As for the music, I didn't much care for the new theme but the incidental music is still good, overly dramatic beats and all.

Overall it's a very good season that is unfairly maligned. It takes the characters and stories forward and there's certainly no wheel spinning or repetition, though there are admittedly some crappy stories in the mix like the one with the assassin who tries to kill Sheridan early on (I'm sick of psycho assassins!). The storylines are perhaps overlong and drag a little, but the season still serves as a fitting swan song for the series. It's a season that ends with a sense of awe and hope but also acknowledges that there are no real endings and no finality; some questions are left unanswered, and we know that the struggles will go on after the credits roll.

My Babylon 5 journey is not quite over, with some more TV movies and Crusade left, but I've now experienced the main body of work and it is indeed an impressive achievement that's well worth the time for any self respecting sci-fi fan. It hasn't aged all that well in some ways, but then again everything ages eventually and I suspect that the strengths of the story and characters of Babylon 5 will always shine through.

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