Neale Monks returns to Babylon 5...
Last time round we looked at a Season 2 episode (‘Soul Mates’) that entertains in some ways but falls flat in others. This time we’re looking at one of the show’s all-time greats, the Season 3 episode ‘Severed Dreams’. It’s an episode with plenty of action and lots of visual effects, but it’s fundamentally an episode about choices. Most obviously, Babylon 5 commander John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) needs to choose between his uniform and doing the right thing, but there are lots of other people making choices too. The commanders of those ships loyal to EarthGov have to choose whether or not they’re going to fire on defecting Earth Alliance ships and colonies, while the broadcasters of the ISN rolling news channel have to choose between telling the people what’s really going on or doing their best to self-censor themselves and stay in business. Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan) has to get her government, the Grey Council, to choose between inaction and action: will they stay out of the turmoil sweeping the galaxy or will they get involved, turning their back on a thousand years of isolation. Even the people living on the Babylon 5 space station are eventually given the choice of whether to stay on board or fly back to Earth.
Sheridan succeeded Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) as the commander of the Babylon 5 at the beginning of Season 2, In reality O’Hare left the show at the end of the first season, in part because of mental health problems. But within the Babylon 5 universe this was explained by saying that O’Hare had been recalled, and his replacement, a bona fide war hero, would assert EarthGov’s control of the space station more aggressively than his predecessor. At least, that was what the Earth Alliance government hoped, and to be begin with that seemed to be how things were turning out. The Minbari were shocked by Sheridan’s appointment, not least because he was the only Earth Force captain that had ever won a military engagement with the Minbari fleet. A few episodes played to this, most notably the Season 2 episode ‘There All the Honor Lies’.
Personally, I liked O’Hare’s thoughtful portrayal of Sinclair, but there’s no question that Boxleitner’s Sheridan is a much more traditional lead character for a sci-fi show. A more seasoned television actor than the more theatrical O’Hare, he projects emotion well and is intensely likeable, key attributes for someone who the show is going to build up into a war leader. His relationships with his first officer, Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian), and Minbari ambassador Delenn are particularly important to the show as well.
In this episode we see the charismatic side of Sheridan at its best. At the start of the episode he’s trying to be a good officer, following his orders while also doing the right thing. But when that becomes untenable and he knows things are going to hell whether he likes it or not, he speaks with his dad, sounds out his senior officers, and finally takes ownership of the situation through his position as military governor of what is effectively a small city-state. He sides with the rebels, channelling an almost Picard-like attitude as he draws the line across which we will not cross. It’s hard to imagine O’Hare having been as forceful (or believable) in this situation, and the closeness of Sheridan’s relationship with Delenn justifies her urgency later on in the episode when she goes looking for support among the Minbari.
The scene on the space station’s command deck is one where Sheridan is shown to be a humane as well as an effective leader. He says his piece to the crew, explains why he’s going against his orders, and then contrary to expectations, one or two of his officers walk out. Sheridan turns to one of those who remains and asks him if he’s alright. It’s a little thing, a brief conversation with a junior officer (played by Joshua Cox) but typical of the nuance given to the better episodes of this series. It would have been all to easy to have everyone on side, all happily following their captain into whatever crisis was ahead of them, and that’s certainly what would have happened in a Star Trek franchise. But Babylon 5 didn’t work that way, and in scenes like this you can see the start of the more subtle interactions between minor and major characters like you’d see on, say, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.
Not the Earth we know and love
That our home planet should become the villain of the piece (or at least one of them) was an unusual tack for television sci-fi to take at the time. Usually we’ve been the good guys, and to a greater or lesser extent the humanity of the future has been shown to be better and more egalitarian than it is today. All the Star Trek franchises worked that way, as did shows like Buck Rogers and to a certain extent the original Battlestar Galactica. British sci-fi shows were, to be fair, a bit more likely to explore the darker side of human nature (the classic example is probably Blake’s 7 in this regard) but it’s probably significant that Babylon 5 built up humanity’s descent into darkness layer by layer.
This steadily darkening tone was not always developed subtly it has to be said, and a few episodes draw so heavily on imagery from Orwell’s ‘1984’ that it’s all but laid on with a trowel. Yet Sheridan’s struggle to balance his personal morality with the increasingly militaristic orders he’s receiving from EarthGov is believable and engaging, and this is what comes to a head in ‘Severed Dreams’, the very title of which underlines the fact something’s about to break, as Babylon 5 eventually secedes from the Earth Alliance.
Sheridan’s declaration of independence doesn’t go unchallenged, and before long he and security chief Garibaldi have to deal with EarthGov’s attempts to regain control of the station through overwhelming military force. There’s a great scene where Sheridan says goodbye to his family back home via his father, played by Rance Howard. Howard in particular manages to convey as much by what he doesn’t say as what he does, and while some of that’s down to the script, his understated but rock-solid acting plays a part too.
The action scenes as EarthForce ships bombard the station are compelling and believable. The CGI might not be cutting edge, but it works well enough, and in truth there’s so much going on that the slightly cartoonish quality to the animations aren’t a distraction. We don’t get random ships flying about zapping things, the trademark appearance of previous sci-fi space battles. Instead there are thought-out battle plans, ships clearly designed to do specific jobs, and moments when even the heroes aren’t able to escape scot-free. It’s worth looking out for details such as breaching pods with clamps to hold onto the hulls of ships and the new Thunderbolt starfuries with their folding-out wings for operations within planetary atmospheres. When it came to spaceship design, Babylon 5 had a real form-follows-function ethic different from anything that preceded it.
Meanwhile, on Minbar…
Actress Mira Furlan fragile and idealistic portrayal of Minbari ambassador Delenn is easily overlooked when compared to Claudia Christian’s earthy (and frequently very funny) take on B5’s second-in-command Susan Ivanova. But there are episodes where Furlan shines with the intensity of a nova, and this is one of them. Explicitly channeling the frustration she felt over the collapse of her home country, Yugoslavia, she gives Delenn a believable degree of intensity in the way she challenges the Minbari ruling council over their failure to act effectively or on time.
As the episode progresses we get to see Delenn as a warrior queen, a nice change from her usual role as wise counsellor or, a little too often in later seasons, chief cheerleader for Team Sheridan. Her timely arrival at Babylon 5 with a group of Minbari battleships is more than enough to save Sheridan’s bacon. Indeed, this scene is one of those punch-the-air moments fans of this series remember, rounded out nicely with her bone-dry but chillingly accurate warning to the EarthGov fleet that “If you value your lives, be somewhere else”.
But however technologically advanced the Minbari might be, theirs is a stagnant society that hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years. Way back in Season 1 the Vorlon ambassador Kosh told Shadow envoy (and the invisible Shadows presumably alongside him) that “They [humanity] are not for you”. This wasn’t a throwaway remark: it was a statement of intent. Were it not for EarthGov siding with the Shadows, human history would have continued to unfold slowly and carefully, one step at a time, and always in keeping with the Vorlon idea that the younger races should look up to them and treat them with respect and obedience. In short, what we see on Minbar is absolutely what the Vorlons had in mind for humanity. Not necessarily unpleasant, but repetitious, hierarchical and to human eyes at least, rather dull.
‘Severed Dreams’ is consistently rated as among the top two or three episodes in the entire series. There’s a massive amount of goodness contained within its 60 minutes. There’s a lot of drama, CGI space battles galore, and competent guest stars who help to draw Sheridan and Delenn into challenging and complex situations. Some elements of the episode are almost without parallel in television sci-fi up to that point: Earth is where the bad guys live, the good guys are effectively traitors and terrorists, and to top it off, the Kirk-like lead character gets his butt saved by an alien fleet led by a woman!
In fact pretty much all the Season 3 storylines unfold at an almost perfect speed; there’s very little filler in this season, though important storylines are given time to develop evenly and naturally. The tension between Sheridan and EarthGov builds up slowly across several episodes; he doesn’t suddenly wake up one morning and decide to be a whole new character, something that tended to happen in earlier sci-fi serials (most egregiously perhaps, with Andromeda). Similarly we gets hints and warnings about the situation on Minbar long before ‘Severed Dreams’, and Delenn’s explosion of anger and frustration towards the Grey Council is clearly justified.
Neale mostly writes about fish, fossils and old computers, but in his
downtime can often be found feeding Daleks or rehoming unwanted