Five Thoughts on Babylon 5‘s “Learning Curve”

By | July 6th, 2022
Posted in Television | % Comments

Two-bit mobster wannabees never change, classes are the same no matter the century, and we, kinda, learn a little more about Lockley’s past. Welcome my friends. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2262. The place: Babylon 5.

Spoilers ahead.

1. The Mighty Rangers

The opening scene of “Learning Curve” is maybe my favorite of the episode. Partially because the episode itself is fairly low-key and partially because it transported me back to anytime we’d do meditation in gym class. Or any class, really. Straczynski really captured what classes can be like, even with a good instructor.

Tag yourself. I’m the Pak’ma’ra in the background fighting to stay awake.

It’s a functional scene too. We learn more about how at least this aspect of the Rangers’ training works while being introduced to the four focal characters of the episode, two novices and two instructors. The novices Rastenn & Tannier are positioned as opposites, one from the warrior caste and the other from religious, but not in an antagonistic way. They fight, sure, but it ultimately comes from a place of uncertainty and difference rather than animosity. The same is true of the instructors, Durhan & Turval.

However, with them we see that JMS is showing what these two novices may one day be like. How differing philosophies built on mutual respect can coexist and compliment each other. That isn’t the central, or even a large, conflict of the episode but it is present and gives the episode more flavor than it otherwise might have.

2. Kill a Bunch of People. Kill the Head of Security. ???? Profit

There are certain tropes and narrative elements that we’ve come to rely on in TV that don’t sit well anymore. One of them is the hardass cop who yells at a reluctant population about how they need to work with them to solve the crimes that are happening. On the one hand, it’s true. He can’t do his job effectively if no one will speak up. On the other hand, is it any wonder they don’t want to help?

The assumption at the heart of the trope is that the cops, or our focal cops at least, are always in the right unless they’re traditionally corrupt or blatantly sadistic. In 2022, that assumption doesn’t hold water, if it ever did. Zack yelling and being Mr. Cop Man didn’t sit well with me because of that. I can’t exactly knock an older show for uncritically indulging in shorthand like this but I also think it’s important to draw attention to. Especially since the guy he’s hunting is a cartoon of a future upstart organized crime boss.

3. Pick a Side. Any Side.

And here’s another plot that I’m starting to get worried by but am also excited about. Garibaldi confronts Lockley about her past during the war and she deflects, saying she was on neither side. I like this conflict! I’ve said as much before. But I’m also wary of it because, well, times have changed. The question of whether one can serve ethically under an unjust and unhinged government and system you do not agree with and what kind of consequences should follow is so, so relevant today and thornier than ever.

Is the show saying yes, one can? Is it saying that a centrist/moderate approach in these situations is an ideal? That in situations like these it is a viable choice equal to resistance? Considering it’s 1998, that could very well be. Or is Babylon 5 asking us to question our own complicity in awful systems and reckon with the seeming inescapability of them?

The lens through which I’m viewing this is foggy and conflicted, in part because mapping reality onto this sci-fi show isn’t clean. We had a coup attempt here in the US in January of 2021, and one can argue that coup is still slow-motion rolling along but let’s leave that aside for now. In Babylon 5 there were technically two coups: the first by President Clark when he had President Santiago murdered and then the second when Sheridan and everyone overthrew Clark after their civil war. The context within which we are viewing Lockley’s actions are the latter but the former remains relevant.

Continued below

She had opportunities to leave or change but didn’t. I think about Cassidy Hutchinson who bravely gave testimony while also being someone who willingly joined an administration that was inescapably rotten and then took until now to stand up and speak out. Do we praise or condemn her? Can we do both? The two are not necessarily equivalent but it is what’s going through my mind.

We still don’t know enough details about what Lockley did or did not do. And resistance is hard. It’s dangerous. It’s necessary and important but damn hard. Do we hold the same contempt for those who want to survive but don’t have the courage or strength as those who actively and knowingly participate in wrong? What’s the gradient? It can be easy to see what’s right and wrong from the outside but when trapped inside, how clear the paths are isn’t obvious.

Those are the questions at the heart of this season, I believe. We’ve seen it with Londo and we’ll continue to see it with Lockley and others. I don’t know what the answer will be or what answer I even want to see. Perhaps it is naïve to believe this sci-fi show will have a satisfying answer to questions we have struggled with for hundreds of years but I trust in JMS’ ability to make them compelling and thoughtful.

4. Sheridan & Lockley? The Rumor Come Out.

What a move to end the episode on a lack of a reveal. What did Delenn find out about Lockley & Sheridan? What has her so mad? I need to know! I mean, I think I know what it was. They probably used to date or something but it could be any number of reasons. Is it bad that I’m excited to find out more about this than what the Drak are up to or how the telepathy unit is going to blow up in Garibaldi’s face? No? Whew.

5. Running Up That Hill

I think I’m starting to see what people mean when they say season 5 isn’t as strong as 3 or 4. It’s not that it’s bad or even just OK. It’s just less tight. “Learning Curve” felt a little aimless compared to the last four episodes, with standard plots and arcs that are satisfactory but not compelling in the same way.

Like Tannier getting beaten nearly to death and then having to go on his “terror” campaign. I feel like we’ve done this before but I can’t remember where. We also don’t get quite enough time with Tannier and Rastenn to get a feel for them and their development. We’re not allowed to be close to them because so many other things are happening, be they big or small. The individual scenes all work wonderfully, like the fight scene between Tannier and the mobster Trace or the one where Rastenn tells Tannier they should mind their own business, but the cumulative effect is weaker than I’d have liked.

That about does it for now. Join me again in a week for the reveal of that end of episode twist, Londo getting into deep trouble, and good old Bester on the station where you’ve been reassigned.

This is Elias. Signing out.

Best Line of the Night:

Rastenn: “I would hardly say sitting and thinking is a challenge.”

Turval: “True. You do seem to have the sitting part down to an art so I suppose there’s hope.

As for thinking, well, let’s leave that for the advanced classes. We shouldn’t expect too much of you at once.”

//TAGS | 2022 Summer TV Binge | Babylon 5

Elias Rosner

Elias is a lover of stories who, when he isn't writing reviews for Mulitversity, is hiding in the stacks of his library. Co-host of Make Mine Multiversity, a Marvel podcast, after winning the no-prize from the former hosts, co-editor of The Webcomics Weekly, and writer of the Worthy column, he can be found on Twitter (for mostly comics stuff) here and has finally updated his profile photo again.


  • -->