A figure from the series' past returns to close one of the more intriguing plot points of the first season, giving us a tantalizing glimpse of the future at the same time.
The station's command staff are in a state of increased vigilance when the station receives a distress call from Sector 14, the place where Babylon 4 disappeared two years earlier. The source of this distress call? Babylon 5... 8 days in the future, as it faces imminent destruction from the Shadows.
As Sheridan attempts to figure out what could be behind this puzzle, a visitor arrives: Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O'Hare), former commander of Babylon 5 and current Earth Ambassador to Minbar. Sinclair is here in response to a message he received on Minbar. A message that was sealed in a vault almost 1,000 years ago, yet was left for him by name.
The plot thickens as Delenn informs both Sinclair and Sheridan of their situation. One thousand years ago, she tells them, the Minbari faced almost certain defeat by the Shadows. Then, at the hour of greatest need, a space station arrived that the Minbari were able to use as their base of operations for the war against the Shadows. That station was Babylon 4.
But the Shadows recognized Babylon 4 as the source of their defeat in the past. Six years earlier, just as Babylon 4 was about to go on-line, the Shadows attempted to destroy the station. That attempt was thwarted only when the station was stolen, literally snatched from time by a mysterious figure Sinclair and Garibaldi knew only as "The One."
Now it is the job of Sheridan, Sinclair, Ivanova, Marcus, and Delenn to close the circle. They must go back in time six years to prevent the Shadows from destroying Babylon 4; then they must take Babylon 4 through time to the distant past, so that the station can fulfill its destiny.
If they do not succeed, then the Shadows will have won the prior war and will be at full strength now. If that happens, then eight days from now - in Mr. Garibaldi's words - Babylon 5 will go "straight to hell."
War Without End is a notable episode for many reasons. The most evident of these is, of course, the return of Jeffrey Sinclair.
Sinclair developed over the course of the first season into a compelling character, one who was defined almost entirely around unanswered questions. What happened to him at the Battle of the Line? What did the Minbari discover that caused them to end their holy war against the humans? What was the "hole in (his) mind?" What did Delenn and Zathras mean when they kept referring to his destiny? Sinclair was defined around these questions, and the absence of their answers. He was a shattered man, though it was not for some time that this became apparent. His dealings with others - particularly the Minbari military caste - showed an anger and thinly-repressed capacity for violence that made him sometimes seem as dangerous as the Shadows he would eventually have fought. He was a damaged man, wise but clearly in need of some serious emotional mending.
Well, aside from a brief cameo in The Coming of Shadows, it has been almost two seasons - and, in the context of the show, more than two years - since we last saw Sinclair. In that time, the character has come a long way. That anger, that buried violence, seems to be all but gone; the sense that he is a man uncomfortable in his own skin has not entirely vanished, but it is certainly reduced. This is a gentler, calmer Sinclair. Though there's a certain sadness in him that was not there in Season One, he seems less troubled, less on the brink of a truly epic nervous breakdown. When he tells Delenn that he finally understands his purpose and has no doubts, it is easy to believe him.
The character has changed, but he is still recognizable as the Sinclair of Season One. Critically, his principal motive in this episode fits perfectly with the latter half of the first season. Starting with the vision of Babylon 5's destruction in Signs and Portents, continuing through his vision of Garibaldi in Babylon Squared and his words to G'Kar in Chrysalis, Season One saw Sinclair given certain knowledge of the future. He knew that the universe was on a path toward something dark and terrible. He did what he could, when the opportunity arose, to try to prevent it. That is key to his actions here, as is particularly apparent in the scene in which he stands on the White Star, recalling his visions, looking out into space and swearing that "It won't happen, I won't let it."
The final major area around which Season One Sinclair was characterized was in his friendship with Garibaldi. When Sinclair couldn't quite trust anyone else, not even Delenn, he felt comfortable putting his full confidence in Garibaldi. Though the story in this episode unfortunately does not allow these two to have any scenes together, the episode does remember their close friendship and plays on that. One of O'Hare's best line deliveries of the series (and almost certainly his best "non-angry" line delivery) comes in Sinclair's sad, haunted response to Sheridan that he wished he had been able to talk to Garibaldi "more than you'll ever know." Jerry Doyle's look of wounded betrayal when Garibaldi learns that Sinclair was on-station and didn't wait for him is similarly fine. Finally, there is Sinclair's message, and the various passwords that Garibaldi attempts in order to access it. All of it is carefully calculated to draw out memories in the viewer of the wonderful friendship the two characters shared during Season One, and these moments make this a far richer episode than it would have been without them.
It's not much of a spoiler to observe that this 2-parter is Sinclair's last hurrah. As such, it is appropriate that he gets the lion's share of the episode's most memorable material. Still, there are scattered gems involving other characters, as well. When Sinclair is talking to Zathras on the White Star, watch Sheridan's wonderfully bewildered expressions in the background. Boxleitner does a fantastic job of showing the character's confusion at all that's going on around him (and beyond it being good character acting, some of the expressions are extremely amusing). Note also Marcus' eagerness to volunteer to help Susan on her part of the mission, and Susan's brief moment of discomfort in reaction.
Finally, Susan gets one absolutely bravura scene in this episode, one that has nothing to do with Sinclair or Marcus. In fact, it's a scene that doesn't even end up happening to the character. In the transmission from the "alternate future," Susan's character is perfectly captured. Sending out her final, doomed distress call, we see her reacting as anyone would: with panic. She's alone on the bridge, she knows she's going to die, and she is terrified to the point of tears... all of which makes the fact that this doomed Susan continues doing her duty, recording the Shadow attack and the final moments of Babylon 5, all the more impressive. It may be Claudia Christian's best-written and best-acted scene since her bitter farewell to Talia in Divided Loyalties.
Sinclair's character has changed a lot. All of his issues, all of that repressed violence, hate, and anger, has been dealt with. Mind you, it would have been nice to have actually seen some of the process, rather than just the result. I know there were probably issues, and certainly expenses, involved in getting O'Hare to Los Angeles to do any guest spot on Babylon 5. But I can't help but think that Season Three would have benefited from one or two additional guest appearances by him, if only to help set the character up a bit in viewers' minds before pulling the trigger on him (remember, a lot of viewers would have started watching the show in Season Two, or even Season Three. To them, Sinclair in this episode would be just another guest star... and a guest star given the bulk of the episode's focus, at that.)
O'Hare does a creditable job, and his performance here is a lot smoother and less mannered than his very early performances in the series. On the other hand, it is far from the intensity of the performances he was turning out late in the first season. In the absence of the anger that he tapped into for his very best performances, he has been left with less to play. His best moments are nonverbal ones. The expression that he gives as he first sees the letter in the precredit sequence, the determined yet mournful look on his face as he bids a silent farewell to Garibaldi, the soft smile on his face as he watches Delenn and Sheridan.
However, when he speaks, his vocal inflections are sometimes a little too soft. He sometimes overplays Sinclair's current "peace," to the point where he comes across as nearly emotionless. In the aforementioned scene with Zathras, there's a palpable difference between O'Hare's fairly one-dimensional foreground conversation and Boxleitner's terrific range of expressions in the background. Remembering the strength of O'Hare's late Season One performances, this competent but comparatively muted work can't help but come as a disappointment.