Not quite as much as "arc-building" as the previous episodes, but a bushel load of character and culture building more than makes up for it.
Earth Central has decided to make Babylon 5 the site of a week-long festival spotlighting the religions of every one of the races represented on the station. For Mr. Garibaldi, the flood of arriving pilgrims (some armed with ceremonial daggers) is a security nightmare. For most of the ambassadors, it is a welcome opportunity to showcase their beliefs and, in some cases, to use as an excuse for a party.
The festivities are disrupted for two of the station's members, however. Commander Sinclair finds his orderly life turned suddenly upside-down by the arrival of Catherine Sakai, his on-again/off-again flame. Meanwhile, Ambassador G'Kar finds his life directly threatened when he receives a message from an old enemy promising that in the next 48 hours, he "will experience fear... will experience pain... and then (he) will die."
The Parliament of Dreams is noteworthy as the episode where J. Michael Straczynski, by his own admission, really "found" the characters. This admission shows very clearly in the episode itself. Whereas in earlier episodes, the characters have occasionally seemed like cyphers, here all the spotlighted characters come beautifully and 3-dimensionally to life. It is a terrific character episode for several members of the ensemble, and is punctuated by a few truly beautiful moments.
This is the episode where, on first viewing, G'Kar finally stops being the "stock villain" of Babylon 5 and becomes someone the viewer is asked to sympathize with and identify with. All previous episodes featuring the character all but encourage viewers to boo and hiss at G'Kar's machinations. Here, however, as he is the target of an assassination attempt, the viewer is asked to sympathize with him.
Such sympathy is not earned immediately, however. G'Kar's arrogance from the earlier episodes remains in full force, and for at least half the episode we get to have quite a bit of fun at his expense as he grows progressively more and more paranoid. He suspects his new attaché, Na'Toth (Julie Caitlin Brown). He hires a bodyguard from N'Grath (the bodyguard... doesn't perform up to expectations). When attending a Minbari ceremony as part of the ongoing festival, he furtively switches his fruit with Ivanova - in a delightful bit of background business that I only spotted after a reader of these reviews pointed it out to me. For most of this, we are laughing at his plight. It's as if G'Kar is being punished for his villainy in The Gathering and Midnight on the Firing Line.
But by the episode's end, we are very much on G'Kar's side. We not only want him to live; we cheer his (wonderfully fitting) retribution against the would-be assassin. Part of this is because we finally get to see more sides to the character. Earlier episodes have characterized G'Kar purely through his bitterness and rage at the Centauri and his distrust of the "Earthers." Here, for the first time, we get to see another facet of his character - his very real wit. His annoyed "progression" when the Narn courier disturbs his dinner at the start of the episode is a delightful comic scene, as is his splendidly-planned retribution against his would-be assassin. By the episode's end, G'Kar has become someone we genuinely like (even if we don't quite trust him yet).
Andreas Katsulas clearly relishes the spotlight, and is superb throughout. He also immediately sparks with Brown's Na'Toth, who is already a far more engaging and entertaining character than his first aide, the ill-fated Ko'Dath. The scene where G'Kar and Na'Toth collaborate on the assassin's fate is impossible to watch without a grin. These two are so good at being devious, and so clearly having fun while doing so, that their fun becomes joyously infectious.
This is also a great episode for Sinclair. The introduction of Catherine brings out sides of the Commander's character that were not even seen in his interaction with Caroline in The Gathering. It is clear that he and Catherine are drawn to each other: by a mutual love of flying, by their mutual intelligence, by the sheer force of sexual heat. However, it is also clear that these two have hurt each other many times. Both actors play this complex relationship superbly, each seeming genuinely drawn to the other while at the same time showing an undercurrent of wanting to get away before the pain starts again. Straczynski's dialogue is very good here, too; we get all the information we need about the relationship, but without it seeming artificial. This is a complex, believable relationship, one I wish we had gotten to see more of.
There are wonderful scenes scattered throughout this episode. There is the high comedy of Londo's Centauri celebration (which largely consists of getting drunk), where passing out is considered the equivalent of "becoming one with your inner self." There is the ethereal beauty of the Minbari rebirth ceremony, immaculate white robes and white tablecloth accentuating the sensuous red of the fruit consumed by the participants. There is the genuinely erotic mix of joy and fear of pain in Catherine and Sinclair's moth-to-the-flame interactions, particularly the scene in Sinclair's quarters when Catherine comes to him to "celebrate." Finally, there is the absolute perfection of the final scene, in which Sinclair showcases "Earth's dominant culture" by lining up one representative of each religion on Earth, from atheism to Buddhism to Eskimo to you-name-it, in a tremendous line of people who the camera tracks for several seconds before the eventual fade-out.
It's all mostly played in a restrained and low-key manner. However, to me, this is the first episode that really showcases the depth, the sense of joy, the sense of the absurd, and the sense of beauty that this series would gradually prove itself capable of delivering.
I suppose I could nit-pick and say that the identity of G'Kar's would-be assassin is ludicrously easy to pinpoint. Alternatively, I could gripe that Bill Mumy's Lennier fails to make any particular impression in his first appearance. But, honestly, who cares? The episode wasn't aiming to be a great mystery, and it is sufficient for Lennier that he is introduced - he'll get his moments later in the story.
There are episodes that are more momentous in terms of plot. Nevertheless, The Parliament of Dreams strikes a chord in other, arguably more important ways than mere "plot development." The series' first real jewel.