The big, overreaching arc of the series truly begins in an episode that manages to feel just a little bit bigger and more portentous than the preceding installments, even before the big fireworks go off at the end.
The Raider attacks around Babylon 5 are escalating ever further, with the Raider ships managing to strike and escape in impossibly fast time. As Sinclair, Ivanova, and Garibaldi attempt to hatch a plan to deal with the problem, other situations are escalating right along with it.
Londo has recovered an important Centauri artifact from a black market dealer: The Eye, a symbol of power that is important to the Centauri Senate in mollifying an increasingly disillusioned populace. Lord Kiro, a Centauri noble who - like Londo - despairs of the decline of the once proud Empire, is the official selected to deliver the Eye to the Centauri Homeworld. Kiro has his own ambitions for the Eye, seeing it as a possible path to return the Empire to its glory days. Meanwhile, Kiro's aunt, the seeress Ladira, has two visions centering around the station: one, of the station's destruction in pain and death and fire; and the second, of Kiro dying at the hands of "Shadows."
Meanwhile, a mysterious visitor comes to the station. The very pleasant and amiable Mr. Morden has made appointments with each of the alien Ambassadors on Babylon 5. He has just one question to pose to each of them...
"What do you want?"
Babylon 5 was much touted from the first as being a groundbreaking "novel for television," rather than a simple weekly series. For much of the first season, however, viewers at the time were probably a little dismayed to find that each episode (on first view) appeared to be a typical standalone story. In hindsight, we can look back and see that the arc was moving, even in those seemingly innocuous early installments. But on first viewing, cynical viewers might have been forgiven for believing that the much vaunted arc was little more than hype.
Signs and Portents is notable as the episode that changes that forever. From Ladira's visions, to the desperate replies of Londo and G'Kar to Morden's questions, to the particular reactions of Delenn and Kosh to Morden, there is no denying that Big Events are occurring throughout this installment. For the most part, it is yet another Season One episode in which seeds are planted for the future. But this time, we can actually see the saplings starting to grow, as events begin taking on some real momentum.
Even very early in the episode, everything feels a little bit bigger here. Much of this can be attributed to director Janet Greek, who brings an almost filmic quality to her compositions. Watch the very early scene where Sinclair discusses the "hole in his mind" with Garibaldi - a continuous shot tracks Sinclair, pacing around the room in a complete circle as he talks, before finally settling on a 2-shot of Sinclair and Garibaldi. Another scene to watch is Morden's brief but indelible introductory shot, as he walks across the dark and empty docking bay through the series of spotlights. With that visual as his introduction, we are already wary of him before he has so much as said a word. The shadows that engulf Morden in his scenes with Delenn and G'Kar radiate evil, and Ed Wasser's disarming smile only heightens the creepy dissonance surrounding the character.
Morden doesn't actually have all that much screen time in this episode, but his scenes dominate the story. Despite the Raider attacks and space battles, somehow one can sense right away that Morden's conversations are the really important events of the episode. The Ambassadors' replies reveal much about them. Delenn recognizes Morden's unseen associates for what they are, and dismisses him with the horrified realization that "They're here" - yet another bit of evidence that Delenn is far more than what she seems at this early stage.
G'Kar and Londo, tellingly, have near identical responses to Morden. Both are at first dismissive of "a silly conversation." But when pressed, both answer Morden's question, letting all their restrained passion flow into their words. G'Kar is bitter at the fairly recent mistreatment of his people at the hands of the Centauri, and this bitterness still informs all that he is at this point. Likely the only reason that G'Kar doesn't measure up to Morden's standards is his inability to answer Morden's second question: "What next?" Oddly, Morden probably does G'Kar a singular favor by pointing up the Narn Ambassador's inability to see beyond revenge; I cannot conceive of G'Kar not realizing that the failure to answer the second question is a troubling one, and perhaps in its way this conversation could be seen to help push G'Kar a little further along in his development.
Londo has no trouble elucidating what he wants. All those past glories that he's been rhapsodizing over, since as far back as The Gathering, reverberate through his reply with pure emotional intensity. "I want us to be what we used to be," he says, with the torture of true bitterness in his eyes and voice. Peter Jurasik is magnificent as ever in this episode. Londo's tragedy is not that he is a weak man; witness his final scene with Ladira, where he is sure his career is finished and yet comports himself with a great deal of dignity. Londo's tragedy is that, given a different set of circumstances, he might have been a great man. His fall begins here, even as he celebrates his salvation.
All the regulars perform admirably in this episode, and the effects shots are the series' best yet, with real excitement to the space combat scenes. Nothing really new is revealed about the characters' personalities; they have all been pretty well established at this point. But we do get another few pieces of the puzzle surrounding Sinclair. Once again, everything about the character comes back to the Minbari, leaving me reluctantly acknowledging that J. Michael Straczynski had a point about just how indelibly tied to the Minbari arc the Sinclair character was.
The Eye, the symbol of Centauri power that Londo's government would pay any price to possess... looks like something a 5-year-old would put together out of twine and string. Yes, it's an incredible nitpick... but I'm damned if I can come up with anything more meaningful to say against this episode. Even Ladira's prophecies (which seem to promise a darker resolution for the series than ended up being the case) are given a "get out" clause within this episode when she states that the future she sees is preventable (something that War Without End will eventually seal).
On the whole, a superb episode. Stunning to think that, by the end of the season (nevermind the series) it will get even better than this!