Following on from the almost pitch-perfect series of episodes that made Season 3, Season 4 has sometimes been seen as starting off well but then suffering a bit as story arcs get rushed along a bit too quickly to feel fully developed. The explanation is quite well known among Babylon 5 fans: network executives weren’t too sure whether they wanted to give the series a fifth season, so series producer J. Michael Straczynski had to make sure he got as much as he could into Season 4, just in case there wasn’t a Season 5.
As things turned out Season 5 got the green light in the end, giving the Babylon 5 production team some headaches as well as opportunities that we’ll turn to in due course. But for now we’ll content ourselves with Season 4, a strong season with lots of good episodes even if it does feel rushed taken as a whole. The Shadow War arc is wrapped up, revealing a lot more about the motives of the apparently benevolent Vorlons in the process as well as the seemingly hostile Shadows. But it’s only the first half-dozen episodes that focus on this, instead the bulk of the season takes us back to Earth (via Mars) as find out how President Clark took over, find out about his allies as well as his enemies, and eventually follow Babylon 5 captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and his team as they set about trying to oust Clark and return EarthGov to its original democratic condition.
Bester at his best
But there are also some smaller stories in Season 4, no less important, but played out on a more personal scale. One of the best episodes of the season is ‘The Face of the Enemy’, an episode that works very largely because of the interactions between two characters, security chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) and Psi Cop Alfred Bester (Walter Koenig). We haven’t mentioned these two characters much in these retrospectives, and that’s an oversight that really does need to be put right.
Let’s kick off by saying that Bester is probably the best role Koenig has ever played. As much fun as Star Trek might be, he rarely had much to do there that provide teenage eye candy in the 1960s series (apparently) or quirky Russian humour in the later films. In Babylon 5 though Koenig all but steals the scenes he’s in. He’s despicable, manipulative and devious, and definitely plays the long game. He does lots of things we can’t approve of, but he always does them for the best possible reason: to protect and promote those he sees as his people, human telepaths. So while definitely a villain in the show, he’s not simply an evil character we want to see defeated because of that alone. Unlikeable, perhaps, but not unsympathetic, and that’s as much to Koenig’s solid acting as it is to the writers and producers of the show.
Garibaldi is another interesting character. While Bester is a recurring character we get to see once or twice per season, Garibaldi is part of the regular cast, and for the first couple seasons mostly played the action hero, only somewhat giving up this role with the arrival of Marcus Cole (Jason Carter) in Season 2. In terms of acting, Doyle is very much from the Bruce Willis school, basically doing rough-and-tumble alongside dry humour, and his character could just as easily work in New York Police Department as a space station. But what we do see in Season 4 is Garibaldi becoming disenchanted with Sheridan’s leadership and eventually turning in his badge and going it alone as a freelance detective. There’s a boiling anger behind his eyes that rarely got let loose in earlier seasons, but in this season we see him furious at what’s happening around him and at what he’s become.
Or so it seems, at least; in truth Garibaldi has been manipulated by Psi Corps into a sleeper agent of sorts. There are plans within plans here. As well as undermining and eventually betraying Sheridan, poor Garibaldi has also managed to get himself involved with a wealthy industrialist, William Edgars (played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr), who has hatched a plan to exterminate telepaths. Again, we’ve got a villain of sorts here whose logic makes perfect sense. No less a person that Babylon 5’s resident telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) assures us that a war is coming between regular humans and human telepaths, and so far as storytelling goes, she’s (mostly) one of the good guys, the telepath we’re supposed to like and relate to. If she thinks this isn’t going to end well, then us regular folks (mundanes, as the telepaths call us) are in for trouble! So Edgars’ plan isn’t without merit. Invent a virus that only affects telepaths, release it, and make it clear to the telepaths that if they step out of line, they won’t get the antidote they need every couple of weeks. There’s no cure and it’s 100% fatal, so if telepaths want to living among humanity, they have to play by humanity’s rules. He’s not a megalomaniac, and here and there we see glimpses of his fundamental humanity. He doesn’t want to cause the telepaths pain, and certainly doesn’t want to wipe them out; he just doesn’t want them to hold the whip hand in human society.
Needless to say Bester sees things differently, but even by his nefarious standards he’s flabbergasted by the scope of Edgar’s plan once he finds out about it (again, via poor old Garibaldi, rapidly becoming the Judas of the show, referenced quite clearly in one piece of his dialogue that includes a comment about thirty pieces of silver).
Surrender or die!
Meanwhile, in outer space we find Sheridan leading a small fleet of Earth Alliance ships whose commanders have decided to join him in his fight against Clark. As he works his way towards Earth, his confrontations end up going one of two ways. Some ships join him, persuaded either by Sheridan himself or after listening to other captains of ships in Sheridan’s fleet, accepting the argument that these are good men as well as respected officers, and wouldn’t be mutinying if there wasn’t a very good reason to do so.
But there are some ships that don’t sign up, and respond to the arrival of Sheridan and his fleet with deadly force. So each step of the way we get the sense of friend taking on friend, or at least two different interpretations of loyalty being played out, with deadly consequences. Crucially though, Sheridan’s old ship, the Agamemnon, decides to join him rather than fight, and Boxleitner puts across Sheridan’s sense of relief clearly and believably. This becomes important later on in the series as things become even more desperate for both sides. Sheridan is, undeniably, a traitor by the standards of the government back home on Earth, and he’s certainly under the influence of alien governments, which is precisely what the Clark government is saying to the citizens of Earth. We know Sheridan is acting under good intentions, but that’s only because we’ve been watching things from the Babylon 5 space station. The folks at home couldn’t possibly know any of this, and there’s no reason at all for them to believe his fleet is anything other than an aggressive insurrection.
And this is where Garibaldi comes back into the story. He’s crucial to an Earth Alliance trap, and as JMS states in the DVD commentary, Garibaldi plays Judas to Sheridan’s Christ. On the one hand we’ve already seen Sheridan die, come back to life, and then lead the good guys into battle. But on the other hand throughout Season 4 we’ve seen Garibaldi explain that Sheridan isn’t a messiah, doesn’t deserve automatic loyalty, and for his part he doesn’t want to go out on any sort of crusade behind this guy. As viewers we know this is a fiction within a fiction within a fiction, but this doesn’t make what Garibaldi say any less insightful, even though we can’t agree with his actions as traitor or the fact they lead to Sheridan’s capture and torture.
Welcome to Mars
Most of this episode takes place on Mars, and JMS explains on the DVD special features that creating a realistic Mars landscape was very difficult using the CGI technology of the time. One problem was creating dust, essential for a bone-dry planet like Mars but extremely demanding in terms of computing horsepower. JMS was pleased with the results, and even some twenty years on, the Mars scenes look good. Not ‘Avatar’ good, but it’s got to be recalled that at the time it was standard operating procedure to simply use two-dimensional matte paintings. Think about all those ‘Star Trek’ episodes where you only ever saw one view of the Klingon homeworld, again and again. Good in its day, but what Babylon 5 did was move this paradigm forwards, giving viewers a more three-dimensional view of a planet that spaceships could swoosh over or people walk across. It might not have been the first use of this sort of technology, but Babylon 5 was certainly the first television show to use it extensively and convincingly.
Space battles are another aspect of the Babylon 5 demand for CGI, and again, this episode pushed those demands to new levels. We’re treated to massed battles of fighters and battleships portrayed in a complicated way than anything seen previously on television sci-fi. At the same time, the show was pretty good at redressing sets to turn them into the different spaceships or buildings, which helped to keep the budget down. The bridge of the Agamemnon is a redress of the Babylon 5 command centre, but there are enough differences to make it feel like a different place, albeit one put together using similar materials and a shared aesthetic.
Sheridan’s capture in a gloomy Martian bar is almost the complete opposite. It’s bare-bones. Dark apart from strobe lighting, and silent except for the soundtrack, the fight scene is all but thrown into a series of snapshots, giving it a visually arresting power that works really well. Sheridan holds his own at first, but we quickly see him getting overpowered, and as well as glimpses of his face, we also get quick shots of Garibaldi’s, Doyle giving us the face of someone who’s watching a former friend getting hurt and not completely sure that he’s done the right thing in creating this situation.
Towards the end of the episode Garibaldi is scanned by Bester who learns about Edgar’s plans. In return, Garibaldi reveals the long game he’s been playing. With all his cards on the table, Bester would now be justified in simply killing Garibaldi, but in a typical Bester twist he leaves poor old Garibaldi alive to ponder what he’s done and why he’s done it. Bester isn’t an idiot though, and embeds psychological commands deep in Garibaldi’s brain that mean he can’t harm Bester in the future. It’s a cool homage to Asimov, and sets up some further problems for Garibaldi later on in the series.
‘The Face of the Enemy’ is definitely one of the best Garibaldi episodes. There’s a lot going on inside his head, but the way he works with Edgars on the one hand and Bester on the other throws his actions into sharp relief. In a sense he’s trying to operate at the same sort of macro level as Sheridan, but he lacks that characters insight and ultimately he’s manipulated by both Edgars and Bester in ways that he doesn’t fully understand. It’s unusual for an action hero to be portrayed as so completely out of his depth. It’s not that he’s stupid — he certainly isn’t played as a dumb cop — it’s just that his street-smarts and cunning just aren’t enough to get by at this level.
It’s also a key episode in setting up the tensions between mundanes and telepaths. That’s something that gets developed in Series 5, not entirely satisfactorily it has to be said, but that’s not the fault of Season 4. Both sides see the war coming, and while Lyta offers up no solutions, at least Edgars does, even if his seems unpalatable from where we’re sitting. In short, that’s what keeps Babylon 5 worth watching even today: complex storylines without simple resolutions, foreshadowing a lot of what we expect in modern serials and very different to the monster of the week format that typified sci-fi shows up until then.
Five Things Learned From Babylon 5
Neale Monks mostly writes about fish, fossils and old computers, but in his downtime can often be found feeding Daleks or rehoming unwanted sandworms.