ISN takes a 36 hour look at Babylon 5, the Narn-Centauri war continues to spill over into neutral territory, and the illuminating aspects of performance are brought to the fore. Welcome my friends. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2259. The name of the place is Babylon 5.
1. A Change in Perspective is All You Need
Creative constraints, especially in the form of studio or editorial mandates, can produce some of the most hamstrung pieces of art in existence. On the flipside, constraints can provide the framework to explore some truly innovative ideas or to present mundane stories in new and unexpected ways. “And Now for a Word” falls into the latter. I absolutely love how the episode is presented as one of those documentary series you would see on Sunday nights on network news. It is still there but this particular aesthetic is less popular now, especially with the actual presence of the newscaster at the scene. What this does is a few things:
One, it provides a look into the mindset of Earth and its news media at this moment in time. We get a few updates about public opinion, how off-world and on-world changes are framed, such as the creation of a Ministry of Public Morale, which is deeply worrying, and the Mars Colony uprising being considered a terrorist plot, as well as that creepy Psi-Corps ad. It also highlights a few of the unspoken prejudices and biases of the newscaster, such as describing Ivanova, the only human female she talks with, as “perky and energetic,” or using her interview with Delenn to guilt her simply because she is from Minbari.
Two, it gives a fresh look at the conflict and allows us to explore it through an outsider’s perspective instead of an insider’s one as we usually do. To keep these kinds of stories interesting and non-repetitive, that’s vital.
Three, it allows JMS to explore the role that media plays in shaping public opinion about an ongoing conflict, how it can reinforce prejudices, and also how the tension between sensationalism and journalism plays out in a world with 24 hour news. Objectivity in journalism is an ideal, rather than a reality, and to examine the ways this is a boon and a detriment is important. Historical reminder, CNN was founded in 1980 and was, at the time of this episode’s writing and release, the only 24 hour (general) news channel. Fox & MSNBC were both founded in 1996.
Four, we can laugh at all the silly trappings of news narration, both the words that have to be said and that serious but campy way of closing out transition segments. I got a great giggle out of Cynthia Torqueman’s line when standing between the human and alien quarters: “Ironically, the alien sector is how the aliens here refer to the human part of the station proving once again
beauty and the beast are in the eye of the beholder.”
Finally, it gives us a new look at the crew and residents of the Babylon 5 and gives us some more backstory for Dr. Franklin and G’Kar. With each passing episode, these two characters prove to be more and more complicated and I am here for it.
2. Interviews are a Performance Art
To elaborate on that last point, and to spin it a bit differently, the format of the episode lets us leave what small measure of objectivity we had and dive head first into a fully subjective look at all the members of B5 through the many interview segments. It’s really clever because 99% of the time we interact with the people featured on the news, it is at a great distance, and are only exposed to the faces and ideas they choose to share with us, in the manner they decide. Here, we know what these people are like off camera, in private, and so the contrast is glaring, even when the speaker isn’t editing who they are, they still are performing for the camera.
Londo is the true wordsmith, honeyed tongued and deceptively dodgy, spinning webs of well formed half-truths and obfuscations, the picture of power excusing itself. G’Kar is the martyr, yelling into an uncaring world that they are here, that their pain is real, but being forced to hide his doubts and the actions that have caused undue harm, lest the righteousness of his cause somehow be diminished in the eyes of the watchers. Dr. Franklin gives a speech, a difficult speech. It may not be calculated but it is told for a purpose, rather than as an act of openness.Continued below
The most obvious of these moments is when the CNC operator David Corwin is being interviewed, with Ivanova in the background. Here the mitigating factor is not the TV hosts but instead Ivanova. Who wants to blast their boss on TV with them right there?
3. Voices from the Depths
Eduardo is back! You all remember Eduardo. He works the space docks? Was part of the strike? He’s great and I love that he was one of the recurring minor characters chosen to be a part of the interview series. Keeps the world feeling real to see familiar characters pop up again, even in small moments. We don’t see the docks or the dock workers much. It also is a good moment for the fake segment, showing all the important parts of the station, not just the administrative and military-based ones.
Another great moment is when they sneak in that Senator Hidoshi is no longer a senator. It’s a small blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line but it’s a detail indicative of the greater changes. It’s storytelling at its finest, trusting the audience to pick up on details that really aren’t necessary but act as pieces that assist in telling the greater narrative.
4. Propaganda, Secret Messages, and Two Wooden Telepaths
I’m quite disappointed that there was only one fake commercial in the episode. I live for those kinds of creative pastiche. But the one we got was still enjoyable to watch as a PSA from hell that oozes the sinister nature of the Psi-Corps by juxtaposing it against the pastoralism and “aw, shucks” of suburban sit-com set-ups of the era.
. . .I’ll be honest, I don’t actually have a lot to say about the commercial. I’m sure it was a much more effective pastiche at the time but it feels pretty docile by today’s standards. That said, I 100% believe this could be a commercial that is widely accepted in B5’s world because it is so mundane and standard. It doesn’t have an ounce of irony to it. Props because while we find it unsettling, knowing what we do, there are probably very few who see or are willing to critique it in the show’s world.
5. And the War, Battle, Thingy
So, yeah. The actual crux of the episode, the rising tensions between the Centauri and Minbari and the fighting that has found its way to Babylon 5 space, it didn’t really capture my attention and part of that was intentional, I believe. I think it was supposed to be a backdrop to highlight the characters and introduce a clear throughline so that the show’s narrative wasn’t unnaturally stalled.
That doesn’t make it less valuable but if the episode were presented as usual, with us trying to discover what was true, what to do about it, and how to keep things from escalating, it wouldn’t have kept my attention because we’ve seen it before. And just as G’Kar is tired and exasperated, so are we. This isn’t a criticism. Were the plot more engaging, ripping us away to do an interview or to go Kosh sighting would have felt like an unneeded distraction.
That and we would never have heard Dr. Franklin’s amazing speech or G’Kar’s heartwrenching backstory.
That about does it for now. Join me again in a week for an episode title that promises spooky things, that smug bastard Morden, and maybe some adventures into deep space on the station that wraps humans and aliens in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal . . . all alone in the night.
This is Elias. Signing out.
Best Line of the Night:
Dr. Franklin: You know what the folks back home don’t understand, the ones who’ve never left Earth, is just how dangerous space can be. Aside from incidents like this just the everyday reality of living your days and nights in a big tin can surrounded by a vacuum.
I remember my first time on a transport on the Moon-Mars run. I was just a kid, maybe 17. A buddy of mine was messing around and zipping through the halls. And he hid in one of the air locks. I don’t know, I guess he was gonna try to scare us or something. I don’t know.Continued below
But just as I got close he must have hit the wrong button because the air doors slammed shut. The space doors opened, and he just flew out into space.
And the one thing they never tell you is that you don’t die instantly in vacuum. He just hung there, against the black like a puppet with his strings all tangled up or those old cartoons where you run off the cliff and your legs keep going. You could see that he was trying to breathe, but there was nothing.
And one thing I remember when they pulled in his body his eyes were frozen.
A lot of people make jokes about spacing somebody about shoving somebody out an airlock. I don’t think it’s funny.