Now that Captain Sheridan and his backstory have been established, the second season is able to deliver its first completely satisfying episode: a fast, thoroughly engaging romp marked by strong character moments and a memorable guest performance by Michael Ansara.
Londo has just finished a meeting with the scheming Centauri, Lord Refa (William Forward), who has dangled the carrot of real power before Londo's hungry eyes in order to enlist Londo's tacit approval in his plans to put a puppet on the throne once the current emperor dies. It is with these thoughts and visions of power dancing through his brain that Londo first spies them: Elric (Michael Ansara) and his group of Techno-Mages, gathered on Babylon 5 in preparation for their departure from civilization.
In his power-hungry state, Londo eagerly schemes to use the mages' presence to consolidate his power back home. He first attempts to arrange a private audience. When those efforts are rebuffed, he resorts to tricks and manipulation... forgetting Gandalf's excellent advice about wizards: that "they are subtle and quick to anger."
Meanwhile, as Garibaldi debates whether or not to return to his post as Security Chief, Ivanova receives an unexpected promotion to full Commander. But the promotion comes with a price. Sheridan, eager to avoid dealing with every minor conflict on the station, passes off to Ivanova the latest internal crisis. The Drazi have split into two factions, one green and one purple, and are fighting violently all through the station to determine which faction will lead for the next five years. Ivanova's task? To find a way to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
But it's difficult to negotiate between two groups whose only true difference lies in which color sash was picked out of a barrel...
The series continues its tradition of introducing major characters and plot threads in seemingly minor episodes. I am referring here to the introduction of William Forward's delightfully slimy Lord Refa, who will be a critical figure in the arc over the next two seasons. Refa is a shrewd manipulator, and a man utterly untroubled by conscience. He knows exactly the words to secure Londo's cooperation, the dream that has guided Londo's actions from the very beginning. Refa tells Londo that his little conspiracy will help "restore (the Centauri to their) rightful place in the galaxy." This being the perfect hook for Londo's ambitions, Londo agrees... and so takes yet another step into darkness.
Vir, of course, is left looking on helplessly as Londo makes his deal with the devil. It is in this episode that Vir really begins to take shape as a character. There are two moments for Vir that really stand out. The first is when Londo asks if Vir believes in fate, prompting Vir's "currents and eddies" speech. Vir delivers the speech in a jumble, of course, and Londo brushes off his words as those of a fool... but if you listen to the words, it's clear that Vir has put a lot of thought into this, and that there is a significant amount of wisdom beneath the stammer.
Also significant is the scene where Vir faces down the Techno-mages to try to secure an audience for Londo. He doesn't want to do this job, we have already seen; he knows it is a bad idea. Still, he remains loyal to Londo, and he faces the mages despite his fear, refusing to flee when the illusory gargantuan advances upon him. Despite his entertainingly glib explanation ("I work for Ambassador Mollari. After a while, nothing bothers you."), the truth is that Vir has not been previously put into the position of facing an apparent physical threat. For the first time here, we see that Vir has quite a bit of courage buried beneath the Woody Allen mannerisms. There is some real steel somewhere in his character... which will become very important later on.
I mentioned in my introduction that this episode strongly benefits from one great guest performance. Michael Ansara is simply splendid as the Techno-Mage, Elric. In this run-through, the character has already been established for me in the novel Casting Shadows. This makes me all the more happy to find that Ansara absolutely fits both the characterization here and the mannerisms described by Jeanne Cavelos in that novel. He has a magnetic screen presence; your eye is instinctively drawn to him when he is on-screen. His voice could make even the most pedestrian dialogue sound like a Shakespearean soliloquy... and the dialogue he gets is far from pedestrian. Straczynski writes two particularly fine scenes for Ansara. The most obvious of these is his final speech to Londo - the "great hand, stretching out from the sky" scene. But his scene with Sheridan, discussing "the magic of the human heart," is equally sublime, albeit in a more low-key fashion. Both in characterization and performance, Elric is a triumph. It's just a pity we never got to see Ansara reprise the part.
Meanwhile, Jerry Doyle continues to excel as Garibaldi. As this episode opens, he is still very guarded on the subject of Sheridan. He's also now plagued by a self-doubt from which he had mostly freed himself by the end of Season One. Of particular note is his scene with Sheridan in his quarters. Garibaldi has been contemplating suicide with his PPG, charging it and then releasing it, when Sheridan comes to him. Remember Garibaldi's "something to live for" scene in Infection, where he took Sinclair to task for his borderline-suicidal tendencies? It would seem that Garibaldi is now in Sinclair's former position, feeling like a failure. The wheel turns indeed.
This is also an excellent character scene for Sheridan, probably the best character scene for the new C. O. thus far. Sheridan notes the gun, and then makes no issue of it other than to wordlessly return it to its holster. Subtle, clean, and effective characterization... and a very different way of handling the situation than I think Sinclair would have used.
Finally, it is nice to see Ivanova get a promotion in this episode. Yes, it's true kids: despite what science fiction television generally portrays, officers in the military do not simply stay at the same rank, frozen in place for eternity. Despite the overt silliness of her subplot with the Drazi, I really enjoyed her scenes here. There's something very appealing about the bouts of sudden absurdity that pop up on this show from time to time. That said, between the Drazi's antics here and their behavior in Deathwalker, I find myself starting to agree with Garibaldi that ejecting them into space seems awfully tempting.
A minor niggle, but Garibaldi is far too open and friendly with Sheridan at the end, even asking him to call him "Michael." Given his near-hostility to his new C. O. in the last episode and his lingering suspicions at the start of this one, that scene near the end sees him warming up to Sheridan far too quickly. Sheridan has yet to do much to truly earn his trust, and Garibaldi is not a person who extends trust easily. By all rights, he should remain guarded around Sheridan for at least a few more episodes.
It's also a waste of a good dramatic set-up. Straczynski said it himself in newsgroup posts at the time. In the first season, he had a team that worked well together and understood each other. Bringing in Sheridan opened opportunities to shake up that friendly dynamic. By having Garibaldi warm to Sheridan so quickly, however, the series is failing to capitalize on that opportunity - which I consider to be one of the more interesting potential avenues to explore with the character change.
Still, that's the only scene that rang false to me. With the exception of that one moment, this was the first second season episode that felt fully up to form, mercifully bereft of the awkwardness that sometimes plagued the first two episodes of the season.
By far my favorite second season episode to date.
Next Up: The flip-side of the episode, from the mages' viewpoint: Jeanne Cavelos' Summoning Light.