An episode that had the potential to be a disaster comes off rather well, though I found the changes in the series more jarring this time around than I had on first viewing.
In the wake of President Santiago's "accidental" death, Commander Sinclair has been abruptly recalled to Earth. Sinclair has been permanently reassigned to a new post, as the first human ambassador to Minbar. His replacement? Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), the only human to ever win a victory during the Earth/Minbari War. A man despised by the Minbari, who to this day refer to him by the pejorative, "Starkiller."
Sheridan's arrival on Babylon 5 sparks an immediate crisis when Kalain, the captain of a renegade Minbari cruiser, stages an apparent attempt on the life of Ambassador Delenn, still encased in her chrysalis. The attempt is stopped when Sheridan and station security arrive to take the Minbari warrior into custody... but things are about to go from bad to worse, as Kalain's ship arrives and demands his release, in a deliberate attempt to re-ignite the Earth/Minbari War.
As noted in earlier reviews, I did not watch Babylon 5 when it was first on the air. Instead, I caught it many years later, via Columbia House's monthly subscription series.
On first viewing, I dreaded this episode for many reasons. Prior to this series, I had never been a particular fan of Bruce Boxleitner's acting; I had always found him a bit shallow as an actor. Also, as the first season went along and Michael O'Hare settled into his role, I found that I quite enjoyed his performance as Sinclair. I had genuine fears that the casting change would seriously harm my enjoyment of the series.
On this second run-through of the series, the dread is both greater and lesser: lesser, because I know the change actually went just fine, and that Bruce Boxleitner actually did a fine job in this role. But also greater, because on this past run through Season One I've picked up a lot of details I missed the first time around, details that have made Season One a far richer re-watching experience than it was a "first viewing experience." Many of those elements have made Sinclair a far more interesting figure the second time around than he was the first. So even though on this viewing I have the benefit of knowing that Sheridan is "going to be okay" (to quote Dr. Franklin in this episode), I find myself in some respects even more resistant to the change than I was before.
The good news is, Bruce Boxleitner and John Sheridan are both "going to be okay." I dare say Boxleitner makes a far more positive first impression than Michael O'Hare did. He's altogether more naturalistic on screen, and seems a lot more comfortable in front of the camera. Boxleitner knows how to act for the camera (whereas O'Hare's background was more focused on stage work), and he doesn't require the "settling in" time that O'Hare did. That simple advantage eases the changeover tremendously.
Even better, J. Michael Straczynski shrewdly makes Sheridan a very different character than his predecessor - and he tools these differences to his actor. Just as Boxleitner seems more comfortable on camera, Sheridan seems more comfortable in his own skin. Where Sinclair was haunted and closed in, Sheridan is much more immediately warm and friendly. Where Sinclair had that deep-buried anger that could flare up at unexpected moments, Sheridan appears very well-balanced and secure. Finally, where Sinclair was a natural diplomat and a strategic planner with a chess master's ability to see five moves ahead, Sheridan relies more on finely-tuned instincts; he doesn't seem to be as much of a long-range strategist as Sinclair, but he's probably much better at making snap decisions. Different characters, with different strengths and weaknesses, just similar enough to allow the arc to proceed with only a few minor speed-bumps.
Straczynski also understands that as a different character, Sheridan cannot simply be plugged into the same character relationships Sinclair held. This episode already establishes the Sheridan/Ivanova relationship, a very different one than existed between Sinclair and Ivanova. Ivanova is to Sheridan what Garibaldi was to Sinclair: a friend and confidante, with the ability to be blunt and informal to her commander. At the end of the episode, Ivanova is the one who yanks Sheridan out of his guilt for being the catalyst for the episode's conflict. Ivanova would never have felt comfortable doing so for
mentor/father figure Sinclair - that would have been left to Garibaldi in the first season. By already differing the character relationships, Straczynski makes it easy to accept Sheridan as his own character, rather than simply as a replacement for Sinclair.
Finally, the "Starkiller" backstory is a masterstroke. Where the Windswords feared Sinclair because of what he was and what he represented, the Minbari as a whole fear Sheridan... not for anything specifically special about him, but simply for what he did. Again, the Minbari arc can proceed for Sheridan along sufficiently similar lines to Sinclair (where called for), but it is given freedom to do so in a different way, opening up new story possibilities at the same time.
This close to Season One, comparisons between the two commanders are impossible to avoid. There is one problem in Sheridan that really stood out to me this time around, in a way it did not my first time through. Sheridan lacks the gravitas that Sinclair always had, even in the very early episodes when O'Hare was struggling. To an extent, this probably is part of the plan; Sheridan was devised as a character who could be taken on more of a "character journey" than was possible with Sinclair, precisely because Sheridan begins as a fairly shallow, surface character. But one can't help but feel that Sheridan, to an extent, is exactly the character J. Michael Straczynski stated in his Signs & Portents commentary that he wanted to avoid: a grinning, cocky action hero.
Also, a definite awkward note is struck by Lennier's expositional infodump at the halfway mark of this episode. In Season One, the Minbari are so determined to guard the secret of what happened at the Battle of the Line that Delenn's Gray Council contact orders her to kill Sinclair if he remembers. Now, all of a sudden, Lennier is ordered to tell the Babylon 5 command staff. Why the change in Minbari attitude? And why order to tell if and only if Kalain appears? It is not information that is particularly useful in resolving the conflict with Kalain; in fact, the Sinclair/Battle of the Line information is more or less irrelevant to the conflict. In addition, the Minbari not only have no reason to trust Sheridan... they specifically have reason (from their point of view) NOT to trust him. I see no compelling reason why this specific scenario results in Sheridan being told the tip of the iceberg of Minbari Great Secrets.
Of course, the scene exists as it does specifically because of Sinclair's removal. Had he stayed, the same information would have been revealed more naturally over the first few episodes of the season, as a logical follow-up to Delenn's words to him near the end of Chrysalis. Without Sinclair, the mystery has to be resolved another way. One wishes that they could have found a way that seemed less like an obvious infodump. As written and filmed, this scene stands out in a bad way as a result of the absence of the character the information most concerns. Having this information revealed without Sinclair actually present was perhaps necessary under the circumstances, but it just "feels wrong," somehow.
My final quibble is not one with this episode itself, but more a complaint about In the Beginning. The description of the Black Star incident here, along with Lennier's description of the Battle of the Line, just doesn't match up terribly well with the prequel that was made later. Sheridan's description of the Black Star incident makes the mining sound less like an act of desperation (as portrayed in In the Beginning), and more like a carefully worked out plan. Similarly, he describes multiple Minbari cruisers being destroyed in the detonation, whereas In the Beginning shows only one cruiser - the Black Star - being destroyed. In addition to this, Lennier refers to multiple human pilots being brought aboard to verify the Minbari's findings with regard to Sinclair; however, In the Beginning strongly indicates that the Minbari ordered the surrender immediately after their examination of Sinclair, with no reference to other pilots. I hasten to add, this is not a flaw with this specific episode. But between this and the absence from the prequel of the Windswords (Deathwalker) or any mention of General Branmer (Legacies), I can't help but wonder why the prequel fails to match up as well as it should with the information received in the series proper.
Season Two's title sequence is, in my opinion, a big comedown from Season One's. Bruce Boxleitner is a very different actor from Michael O'Hare, with different strengths and very different weaknesses. One of those weaknesses becomes instantly apparent. While O'Hare's deep, gravely voice made him a natural for the Season One title sequence, Boxleitner's higher-pitched voice just doesn't sound right when delivering narration. As a result, his introductory narration (even in the revised version of the later Season Two episodes) sounds forced and awkward, rather than authoritative or portentous.
The credits sequence is also much more "standard TV" than the Season One credits. The Season One credits may have been simpler - just the names against a moving starscape - but there was something that felt classy, even filmic, about them. Here, the actors' names run against fairly standard glory shots of the actors. Some of the shots are well chosen (notably the ones for Lennier and Vir), but the overall effect feels quite bland and ordinary.
On the plus side, Christopher Franke's revised theme music fits Season Two very nicely. It is recognizably very much the same piece that was used for Season One. However, where Season One's music was hopeful and bright, Franke has introduced a darker and richer undertone to the theme for Season Two. Despite Boxleitner's claim in his narration that Babylon 5 is "the last best hope for peace," the music tells us the same thing Chrysalis showed us at the end of Season One: that hope for peace is already doomed to failure. Events are in motion that now cannot be stopped, and it is just a matter of waiting for the momentum to catch up before the various races will descend into the fire of war.
The music, sadly, does not make up for the weak narration or the unimaginative title visuals. As a result, Season Two's title sequence is far and away my least favorite of the series' titles (and that includes the Crusade and Legend of the Rangers titles).
A solid episode, that does what it has to do in a reasonably confident fashion. Nevertheless, an awkward expositional infodump and some inevitable comparisons between the new commander and the old do take their toll.
Next Up: What of Commander Sinclair and his abrupt new appointment? We'll take a sidestep into the world of comics to find out his reaction to the news.