An experimental episode that, done badly, would have been miserably dull instead turns out to be one of the best episodes of the season.
An ISN special report details 36 hours on Babylon 5. But this 36 hours is more eventful than most. The Narn and Centauri have brought their war directly to Babylon 5's doorstep, and the news crew finds its arrival marked by the destruction of a Centauri vessel at the hands of a Narn fighter!
The Narn claim that the Centauri have been using the neutral territory of Babylon 5 to arm their ships for attack with weapons of mass destruction. When a scan of the debris of the Centauri fighter confirms those claims, Sheridan insists that all Centauri vessels be searched, and all weapons confiscated. But Londo fumes over this breach of the Centauri's "sovereign rights."
Just as the situation appears under control, a Centauri heavy cruiser appears outside the station, its gunports open, threatening to use lethal force to blockade the station until the Centauri vessels are returned. And the cameras are rolling for every second of this...
Corwin finally gets his name!
Yes, it's a minor background trivia note. Still, the character's been around (billed as "Dome Tech" or "Tech #2" or somesuch) since early first season. It's nice to see a name finally put to the face. Corwin's interview is quite fun, too, as he basically goes from one bald-faced lie to another, telling the cameras how safe and tranquil his job is. The scene is made briefly hilarious by Ivanova's reaction in the background when Corwin states - with a straight face - that he's never seen any station personnel get mad. It is just a tiny drop-in bit. Nevertheless, it's highly enjoyable watching a glorified extra evolve into a character, still staying in the background all the while.
In my last review, I complained that many of the episodes in the middle part of the second season have fallen short of the series' best efforts. They have all been competent and watchable, even quite entertaining. Still, they lacked that sense that the best Babylon 5 episodes have: that vague feeling that everything is spinning out of control.
Well, this episode manages to recapture that sense for the first time since The Coming of Shadows. It's not a big event episode like that one was. But the episode captures the uncontrollable nature of war. Babylon 5 is neutral territory; Sheridan is determined to keep it that way, and to maintain the peace. However, every time he seems to have resolved the dispute between the ships at his station's door, either the Narn or the Centauri do one more thing to make the whole mess just a tiny bit worse than it was already.
The climax of the episode - as Sheridan's final plan works, only to be foiled by an unexpected and shockingly senseless occurrence - shows all too well the insanity that happens when peace ends. Two different peoples, who are more alike than they would admit and who hate each other with every fiber of their being, simply will not behave reasonably once given license to kill each other. War itself becomes Sheridan's enemy in this episode, and War is just too intractable a foe for Sheridan to overcome.
The structure of the episode, formatted as an ISN special news broadcast, actually works quite well for this story. Because the "live action" can be intercut with previously-recorded interviews with the assorted characters, we are able to get the sense of what lies beneath this conflict.
As is nearly always the case, Andreas Katsulas gets the single best scene of the episode. As he relates how the Narn greeted the Centauri with open arms, only to find themselves enslaved by these advanced aliens, the viewer gets a sense of the depth of the anger all the Narn must hold toward their enemies. The scene becomes truly riveting as G'Kar forgets his public face for a moment and recalls the death of his father - hung alive from a tree for 3 days for the unforgiveable crime of accidentally spilling a drink on a Centauri's mistress. Katsulas effortlessly switches gears from G'Kar the Public Orator and Manipulator to the entirely genuine, justifiably bitter G'Kar beneath the mask.
This heartbreaking scene is followed immediately by Londo, in his new black finery, superciliously dismissing G'Kar's claims and insisting that the Centauri were there to "help" the Narn. At this moment, I couldn't help but feel a brief instant of hatred for the Centauri ambassador. When an episode of a television series can make me feel genuine hatred for a fictional character (and a fictional character I generally like, at that), then I know that the episode is doing its job well.
Other characters also fare well. Richard Biggs gets to show Stephen's anger at the senseless loss of life. Stephen is angry throughout this episode, probably because his role in the episode begins in the rushed triage that follows the initial attack by the Narn. Over the next 36 hours, it is doubtful he gets much rest, and he is probably spending every waking hour tending to the significant (and ever increasing) number of wounded created by the standoff.
Stephen's interview also shows some of the character that we don't normally get to see. He recalls the death of a friend of his, from when he was 17 years old. The friend, messing around on the ship, got trapped in the ship's airlock and accidentally sent himself flying out into the vacuum of space. The 17-year-old Stephen could only watch as his friend died agonizingly, his lungs trying to draw in breath where no oxygen existed. He then directs a small but angry tirade at (an unnamed) Garibaldi, noting his annoyance with "some people" who joke about "spacing" people or throwing people out of airlocks. "I don't think it's funny," Stephen says vehemently. "I never will."
Mira Furlan and Bruce Boxleitner also excel in their characters' interview segments. Furlan handles a potentially-mawkish breakdown scene magnificently, making the erosion of Delenn's poise during her interview not only believable but compelling. Boxleitner gets an ending speech that's a close parallel to Sinclair's closing speech at the end of Infection - only this one works better, in no small part because this time the speech actually seems like an organic part of the episode, rather than something tacked on because "it would be neat."
Sheridan's words are also consistent with his character. We've seen in past episodes that Sheridan is mildly obsessed with history. It is perfectly in keeping with that for Sheridan to be concerned with building on the achievements of the past, and creating a world for the future.
A good episode all around, really.
It does call for more than a little suspension of disbelief that the ISN crew is allowed to remain on C & C (and allowed to return to C & C later) during a crisis that could potentially pull Earth into a shooting war. It's easy to forgive this, on the simple grounds that the story wouldn't work if the crew was kicked off the bridge when the shooting starts. In reality, however, I doubt they would have been allowed to remain, and I certainly doubt they'd have been allowed to return.
Easily the best episode since The Coming of Shadows.