The first major battle against the Shadows finally arrives in this gripping episode - but what really had me on the edge of my seat was not the mammoth battle waged by Sheridan, but instead the personal ordeal suffered by Stephen, as Richard Biggs tops even his usual excellence playing not one, but two, Stephens.
The time has come. Sheridan and Delenn have put together the League of Non-Aligned Worlds into a potential fighting force. They have made contacts with at least a few of the First Ones. The Minbari have put together a fleet of White Stars. They have discovered the Shadows' weakness - telepaths - and they have tested that weakness. Most important of all, Sheridan has finally figured out where the Shadows are going to strike. Now it is time to prepare an ambush.
As Sheridan's fleet waits in Hyperspace, Susan and Marcus are deployed in the White Star to the Shadows' intended target. Their mission is to let Sheridan know the instant the attack arrives - and then get out fast, before the Shadows have a chance to take action. It's a dangerous mission. As Sheridan notes, even if everything goes right, Susan and Marcus "only have a 50-50 chance of making it back alive." Needless to say, everything does not go right. Susan could have told Sheridan that. She's Russian; they understand these things.
Meanwhile, Stephen's walkabout finally reaches its end when he attempts to stop a beating in Down Below. For his trouble, he is brutally stabbed - and the man he saved runs, not wanting to get involved with station security. Stephen is left alone, bleeding to death, with no one to help him. He gets only one response to his weak cries for help... a sneering, arrogant vision of himself.
All of the careful preparation for Sheridan's battle against the Shadows is paid off here. Sheridan and Delenn move from studying the Shadows, from discovering the Shadows' weakness, from building a fragile alliance among the Non-Aligned Worlds, to finally taking action.
The battle against the Shadows is magnificently realized, with CGI work that remains impressive more than a decade after the original airdate. More importantly, the episode's director and editors do a great job intercutting the "light show" with the characters. We don't just see ships exploding and people shouting orders. We come back to the Minbari telepaths, straining against the Shadow vessels. We come back to Susan, looking terrified and determined all with one will. We come back to Marcus, stoically waiting for whatever comes next and ready to act the instant circumstances allow him to do so. Finally, we come back to Sheridan and Delenn, directing the battle, monitoring the Shadows' tactics, responding in an instant to whatever move the enemy makes, while at the same time having to absorb the horrific losses this battle is inflicting on them.
I've said before (probably too many times) that one of the key differences I've seen between Sinclair and Sheridan is in their tactics. Sinclair was an intellectual chess master. In Signs & Portents, he had laid out the entire battle plan long before the Raiders actually arrived; by the Raiders appeared to spring the trap, the fight was already over save for the shooting. Sinclair took his time, prepared his strategy, and knew every move that was going to be made by either side before the fight was even engaged.
...which may be exactly why a battle like this called for a character like Sheridan. Sheridan is not a chess master, is not an intellectual. We've seen Sheridan trying to deal with long-term strategizing already, in the episodes leading up to And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place; though he managed to pull it out (notably, in a snap instant, and not when he was studying the reports intently), even Delenn could only charitably describe his reaction to the puzzle as "cranky."
No, what Sheridan is a master of is the immediate. He relies on his instincts and makes fast decisions in response to a crisis. When he goes with his instincts, those instincts are proved right more often than not. In this battle, we see Sheridan shifting strategy in a heartbeat many times. The Shadows are boxing in the Drazi? A Minbari cruiser will hang back to protect the Drazi. The Shadows are moving to flank them? Alter the pattern of some of his ships to make that more difficult. In this way, the battle as it plays out is one that had to be led by a character like Sheridan; I just can't quite picture Sinclair making so many snap decisions on the spot, with no time to think them through.
Even as this episode pairs Sheridan and Delenn at the center of the battle, so does it once again pair Marcus and Susan. Their relationship here is clearly juxtaposed against Sheridan's and Delenn's. They even share a scene that recalls the beautiful moment in Messages from Earth, in the sleeping area of the White Star. But the echo of that scene only shows how different the couples are. In Messages from Earth, Sheridan opened up to Delenn, telling her about his father making it rain in one of the loveliest scenes the series ever presented. In this episode, Marcus only opens up to Susan when speaking Minbari. When speaking a language Susan can actually understand, Marcus just plays off his feelings as a joke. On my first viewing of the series, I had been entirely of the opinion that Susan was the one keeping Marcus at a distance. On this viewing, I see at least as many instances of Marcus pushing Susan away, simply by not letting her really pass through his facade.
Another element that consistently strikes me on second viewing of the series is the character of Stephen Franklin. My first time through, Stephen seemed like one of the blander characters to me. It wasn't until late Season Three, on my first viewing, that he seemed like anything really other than another "stock sci-fi series doctor." On this viewing, however, his complexity has stood out as early as Infection. On first viewing, I would likely have listed Stephen as one of the more expendable regulars. This time through, he has become my favorite of the series' human characters, simply because he is so driven, and so fascinatingly flawed. So... human, I suppose.
If Sheridan's battle with the Shadows provides this episode with its fists, then Stephen's ordeal in Down Below provides its heart. Everything that has been building in Stephen from the very beginning climaxes here, as he finally reaches his goal of meeting himself.... quite literally. What Stephen discovers is that he doesn't actually like himself very much.
The vision that Stephen encounters is an amalgamation of all of his worst characteristics. "Vision Stephen" is cold and arrogant. He lectures the injured Stephen while walking around, looking down on him from above - the same sort of scornfully superior attitude Stephen has taken toward patients on a few occasions - such as the alien family in Believers, the family Stephen patronized with Gloppit eggs and false cures, all the while so certain that he knew what was best. Then, having played the role of Stephen's dark side, "Vision Stephen" takes on another role: Stephen's father, the career military man Stephen has so vehemently rejected in the past. As Stephen determines that he wants to live - wants the chance to "do it all over" - his vision becomes what his father most likely once was: a drill sergeant, barking orders, pushing Stephen to ignore the pain and fight for his life. In all facets, "Vision Stephen" remains harsh, even dark. He is Stephen stripped of his most redeeming qualities: his compassion and his dedication to life.
That dedication to life is what wins out in the end for Stephen. The final scenes of him in Medlab show him back in his element. Despite his injuries and his recent fall from grace, the Medlab staff show full deference to him. When he wheels himself away from his own hospital bed, he effortlessly takes charge of the mass influx of patients that was the inevitable by-product of Sheridan's battle. In the field of medicine, Stephen is a natural leader. As head of Medlab, he was and is the right man, in the right place, at the right time. One hopes that this experience teaches the character to be secure in that. As Stephen says near the end, he should learn to "do better," not just to "do more."
"I'm alive," Stephen tells Sheridan, voice carrying an almost heartbreaking intensity. "Everything else is negotiable."
Finally, there's the episode's ending. With everyone anticipating a reprisal from the Shadows for the wounds inflicted here, we are then treated to a huge build-up of a mysterious visitor to the station. Who can this visitor be? An assassin? A monster? Maybe Mr. Morden?
It's none of the above, as the episode ends on a shocking revelation, and the image of a snowglobe shattering just as this particular character's arrival will shatter the relationships and status-quo among the main characters.
"Z Minus 2 Days." Be afraid...
The full effectiveness of that last-minute arrival's brief appearance comes, at least in part, from the surprise of that particular entrance occurring at that particular moment. It's very well done, cinematically speaking, with the slow-motion of the shattering crystal echoing the inevitable result of this arrival on the characters, particularly on Sheridan and Delenn. But it would be even more effective if the front credits didn't spell out for us at the start that this character was going to be in this episode. This is not a criticism of the way the show is shot or edited; but it is a shame that they could not credit this performer in the end credits, the way they credited Michael O'Hare at the end of The Coming of Shadows.
Also, I'm afraid Bruce Boxleitner's performance in much of this episode seems about half a pitch off to me. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I got the impression that he was forcing certain line deliveries in this episode. The lines weren't misdelivered and his performance wasn't in any way bad - I can't even objectively describe why his work felt off to me. I just know that his performance in this episode didn't feel as natural to me as most of his work has.
Minor nit-picks aside, this is one of the key episodes of the season, with impressive CGI work and an incredible double-performance by Richard Biggs. I can't quite award it full marks, but it is yet another excellent episode.