Five Thoughts on Babylon 5‘s “Messages from Earth”

By | July 30th, 2020
Posted in Television | % Comments

A strange ship is found on an archaeological dig, pretense is the name of the game, and were it not for the space setting, I couldn’t tell if I was watching the news or a 24 year old season. Welcome my friends. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2260. The name of the place is Babylon 5.

Spoilers ahead.

1. Eggsecute Order 66

“Messages from Earth” opens on a moment of mundane bliss. The crew of B5 are eating their usual breakfast of Blue Mush and shooting the shit when Ivanova gets delivered a special plate. A plate of bacon and eggs. Now, for me, that’s not something all that remarkable but remember, to get anything fresh on the station that isn’t grown in the gardens is expensive and tricky. Real egg? Bacon? Fuggedaboutit.

It’s such a wonderful moment and, upon considering the events of the rest of the episode, may mark the final bit of true carefree fun we’ll get. The station is about to be rocked and nothing will be the same again.

But damn if those eggs don’t make for a great transition cold opener.

2. Do It

Before I get much farther into the episode itself, I have to first commend JMS on his writing for these 8 episodes. Each better than the last and the shape of the season feels far more finely tuned than ever before. It’s clear he’s grown as a writer, while also reaching the point of the story where he can let things really take flight. While it is technically episode 9 that “beats” the record, this episode marks the longest JMS was the sole writer for B5, if we count the 5 episodes from the end of season 1 and the first 3 of season 2 as one 8-episode long run. . .and he’s just warming up. (Yeah, yeah. I know. He also wrote the final 5 of season 2 but shhhh, I forgot to do this in episode 6.)

In a feat never before done, and never done since, mostly because it literally almost killed him, he will go on to write the entirety of season 3, season 4, and 21 of the 22 episodes of season 5. That’s 51 straight episodes (56 if we count the end of season 2) followed by another run of 14. Sure, there were season breaks but 2 chunks of 22, and then 7 and 14, only separated by a week or so by yourself is lunacy and not healthy. In total, he’s the writer on 92 of the 110 episodes total.

Why am I talking about this? Well, I just got through reading “Becoming Superman,” J. Michael Straczynski’s autobiography and aside from being such a good read that I finished it in one day, the chapters on Babylon 5’s production, writing and the behind the scenes drama with Warner Bros were enlightening. For starters, there are more details on Michael O’Hare during the production of season one as well as other cast problems we’ll get to when we get to season five in two years. For another, the behind the scenes stuff with Paramount & Deep Space Nine is somehow even more bonkers than has been hinted or talked about before.

Finally, and most importantly, it wasn’t planned this way, to have JMS writing them all. A combination of the limited budget of PTEN shows, the departure of Larry DiTillio as story editor and a late renewal put him into the position of having to write season 3 on his own and then he was asked to do it again by the network for season 4, which he accepted simply because “no one had told me it was impossible.”

As much as I commend him for the achievement, and for the quality of the writing during this era, it’s worth noting what he went through and had to do to write all those scripts. That part, he makes very clear and I agree, is not to be admired or copied. I’ll leave his words here.

Working eighteen to twenty hours a day, every day, led to carpal tunnel syndrome and I could only work by icing down my wrists twenty minutes for every hour spent writing. My brain was so full of story and production dilemmas that most nights I only slept an hour or two, sometimes not at all. I didn’t want to take sleeping pills because I was afraid they might mess with the writing, so night after night I found myself staring at the ceiling as dawn filtered through the curtains. My immune system was so stressed out that I was constantly sick with one bug or another. Pat Tallman [Lyta Alexander] and Jeff Conway [Zach Allan] began leaving jars of vitamins on my desk, and John Copeland had me undergo a physical exam normally reserved for actors so the show could be insured in case I collapsed from exhaustion or fell over dead. My hair, brown when we started B5, turned almost entirely white by season four.

Rather than admit that I was drowning, I pushed my feelings down and tried to pretend that everything was fine. The kid in me who was incapable of asking for help was still very much in charge. I couldn’t admit, even to myself, that I was in pain. (Pg. 338).

Continued below

3. Have You Heard the Tale of Diagonal Beds the Uncomfortable?

When Lennier, Sheridan and Delenn are aboard the White Star, I find myself thinking less about the plot at hand but at the design of the ship. When we were first introduced to the ship, I commented on the Vorlon nature of it. In “Messages from Earth” I noticed the Minbari, specifically the religious Minbari, nature of it: the triangular motifs, beds that look like granite slabs with granite pillows, the focus on balance and light.

Wait wait wait. Back up a second. What’s with the beds?

These things look like the worst possible things to sleep on, and I’ve slept on some pretty unsparing grounds before. Sheridan shares my reticence in a wonderful moment of physical humor that turns into a very sweet conversation with Delenn. It also feels like, in light of the above quote, JMS might be talking to himself a little when Lennier tells Sheridan to sleep, otherwise if he fucks up the next day, it’ll all be his fault for not being rested. It’s Lennier so it’s far more diplomatic than that but we get the gist.

So, why are they diagonal? Apparently to sleep horizontally in Minbari culture is to tempt death which, you know, that’s a fair point. I’d like to not tempt head trauma but you know what? I could get used to not tempting death every night.

Now granite? That shit’s got to go.

4. I AM the Shadows

The A-plot of “Messages from Earth” concerns an archaeological dig that has uncovered an ancient Shadow vessel beneath the surface of Ganymede. Clark’s Earth gov wants to turn it into a weapon, because of course they do, and had previously buried the report on another vessel found on Mars years before. This is why Sheridan & Co. are off to fuck the ship up. It, as is usually the case, does not go as planned thanks to humans meddling in things we do not understand and we get Action! Hijinx! Near Death Escapes!

. . .And this event is used as a pretense to declare martial law on Earth. Whoops.

At least Clark doesn’t have his ultimate super weapon.

5. It’s Treason, Then

There are still federal police in the streets where there should be none. It’s been a week and they are still there, with no ramifications. This has been your friendly reminder. Now, for something completely different: Nightwatch.

Nightwatch seems to be emboldened this week, despite the shut down of the political liaison on the station, with more discussions of meetings and this Biff-looking dude leading things as Zach is drawn farther and farther in. He looks so uncomfortable but is clearly afraid of rocking the boat. I’m waiting waiting for him to change but I love the tension of just how far will he be willing to compromise himself before it is a bridge too far.

Londo, we have seen, has gone much farther. Vir has not. Zach? I guess time will tell. I’d talk more about this here but I said enough last week and in many others before it. Just one final observation: it is striking how fast things are beginning to escalate with relation to previous seasons. Such is true of reality.

That is a scary thought.

That about does it for now. Join me again in a week for, well, a buttload more scary thoughts, prophesies, and Biff strutting around like a puffed shirt on the station that, in the year of the Shadow War, became something greater.

This is Elias. Signing out.

Best Line of the Night:

Dr. Franklin: “There was just one ship, wasn’t there?”

Mary Kirkish: *pained look like the Curb your Enthusiasm music is playing*

//TAGS | 2020 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 wining 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 really needs to update his profile photo again.


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