“BABYLON 5” RETROSPECT: (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”

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“BABYLON 5” RETROSPECT: (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”

About eighteen months ago, I had posted a list of my favorite Season Two episodes from the 1993-1998 syndicate series, “BABYLON 5”. And one of those episodes happened to be (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”. For the sake of sentiment, I recently re-watched the episode to see if my views on it had changed.

The series’ second season – titled “The Coming of Shadows” – introduced a new character to the “BABYLON 5” universe. Captain John J. Sheridan first appeared in the season’s premiere episode, (2.01) “Points of Departure” to replace Babylon 5’s first commanding officer, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. Like the latter, Captain Sheridan was a veteran of Earth Alliance’s last major conflict, the Earth-Minbari War, which was fought over a decade before the series’ setting. Sheridan was the only Earth military commander who scored a major victory over the Minbari, who possessed superior forces and weapons. Sheridan was also a married man, who became a widower following the death of his wife, Anna Sheridan. Two years earlier, Anna was killed while serving as a member of a planetary expedition aboard a ship called the Icarus for a mission to explore an obscure planet called Z’ha’dum.

The episode (2.02) “Revelations” dealt with Sheridan allegedly coming to terms with Anna’s death. But the events of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” proved otherwise. The story began with the arrival of a Human named Mr. Morden to Babylon 5. Following his first appearance in the Season One episode, (1.13) “Signs and Portents”, Mr. Morden managed to form an alliance with Ambassador Londo Mollari of Centauri Prime. Using his connections with an ancient and powerful race of aliens known as “the Shadows” – whose homeworld happened to be Z’ha’dum, Morden helped the Centauri deal with its main enemy, the Narns. During Morden’s latest visit to Babylon 5, Security Chief Michael Garibaldi unintentionally identifies him as a regular visitor to the station during a private conversation with Sheridan. When the captain realizes that Morden had been a member of the Icarus expedition that led to Anna’s death, he has the man arrested and placed in a holding cell. Sheridan becomes obsessed with learning about the details of Anna’s fate; and also the details behind Morden’s survival and failure to inform Earth Alliance. This obsession leads the good captain to break security rules, alienate members of command staff and attract the attention of the Centauri, Minbar and Vorlon ambassadors.

During my latest viewing of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”, I tried to pinpoint what I did not like about it. I managed to find one aspect that struck me as unappealing. Sheridan’s manipulation of resident telepath Talia Winters’ only meeting with Morden struck me as rather forced. David J. Eagle’s direction and Christopher Franke’s score tried a little too hard in making this scene dramatic by amping up the suspense. The scene’s build up struck me as over-the-top that it almost overshadowed the pay-off of Talia and Morden’s actual meeting. It is a flaw I have spotted in other “BABYLON 5” episodes – even in some of its best.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” may not have be perfect, but I believe it might be one of the best episodes of Season Two . . . and in the entire season. The ironic thing is that hardly any action occurred in this episode, aside from a well deserved slap that Sheridan received from Talia. And yet, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum not only helped drive the series’ main narrative forward, it also foreshadowed two major story arcs in future episodes – Sheridan’s conflict with the Shadows and Garabaldi’s role as Babylon 5’s security chief. It also foreshadowed a minor plot – namely Morden’s future fate. These story lines are major examples of series creator J. Michael Straczynski’s use of foreshadow in his writing. And as far as I am concerned, no one else did it better other than George Lucas for his “STAR WARS” movie franchise.

However, I believe the best thing about “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” was the development of the John Sheridan character. Many fans had not been pleased when Bruce Boxleitner replaced the late Michael O’Hare, who portrayed Jeffrey Sinclair, as the series’ new leading man. They accused the Sheridan character of being lightweight and dubbed him with the nickname of “Captain Smiley”. Personally, I never had any problems with Sheridan before this episode. But this is the first time the series ever focused upon the negative aspects of Sheridan’s character. And I found it very interesting. “Revelations” had revealed that Sheridan had yet to recover from his wife’s death. “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” revealed that Sheridan’s inability to recover from his grief brought out the worst of him – his temper, his penchant for brooding, his stubborness, his talent for manipulation and most importantly, his ruthlessness. Sheridan’s reputation as “Captain Smiley” disappeared after this episode. For good.

The episode also featured a minor story line regarding the arrival of an Earth Alliance official named Pierce Macabee. The latter represented Earth Alliance’s Ministry of Peace, which served as a security and propaganda machine for President Morgan Clark’s administration. Macabee arrived at Babylon 5 to recruit the station’s crew into Earth Alliance’s new paramilitary organization, Nightwatch. These members were instructed to uncover and report on what they perceived to be “subversive” activities – namely open criticism and defiance of Clark’s Administration. This story line was introduced in such a subtle manner that it almost seemed like afterthought. Almost. It allowed audiences to hear Macabee’s speech about Nightwatch and watch him recruit some of the station’s crew – including Zack Allen, who served with Babylon 5’s security force under Garibaldi. Although Zack joined Nightwatch simply to earn extra credits, his decision will prove to have a major impact upon the series’ main narrative, early in Season Three. The Nightwatch story arc proved to be another example of Straczynski’s talent for using a minor story line as foreshadow. Very few writers and producers seemed capable of using this narrative device with any strong effect. Pity.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” also featured some first-rate performances. Regular cast members such as Claudia Christian, Mira Furlan, Jerry Doyle and Richard Biggs gave strong supportive performances. Although I was critical of the scene featuring Talia Winters’ encounter with Mr. Morden, I certainly had no problems with Andrea Thompson’s performance. The actress did an excellent job in conveying Talia’s horror and later, outrage over Sheridan’s actions. Jeff Conway really made the role of Zack Allen his own in this particular episode. I have always believed that one aspect that made a performer a first-rate screen actor or actress, is his or her ability to react to other characters. Conway was very effective in utilizing this acting tool in his scenes with Boxleitner and Doyle. And his performances in scenes with certain supporting characters struck me as effective and subtle at the same time. Especially in one scene in which Zack arrested Mr. Morden. I also have to commend Alex Hyde-White for his guest-starring turn as Nightwatch recruiter, Pierce Macabee. He did a superb job in projecting the Ministry of Peace’s menace with such subtle charm.

Ed Wasser, who made such an impression as the quiet, yet menacing agent for the Shadows – Mr. Morden – in previous episodes, continued his excellent work in this episode. However, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” also featured other dimensions to Morden’s personality – fear, surprise and impatience – that Wasser conveyed with great skill. I especially enjoyed his work with both Stephen Furst and leading man Bruce Boxleitner. I have always been a fan of Furst since I first saw him in the 1978 comedy, “ANIMAL HOUSE”. His time on NBC’s “ST. ELSEWHERE” and “BABYLON 5” revealed his talent for dramatic acting. Furst effectively combined his skills for both drama and comedy in one particular in which Centauri Ambassador Aide Vir openly expressed his dislike for Morden. It is one of my favorite moments from the series.

Although the “Captain Smiley” nickname for the John Sheridan character disappeared after “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” first aired on television, Bruce Boxleitner’s reputation as an actor suddenly gained momentum among the series’ fans. I do not understand why. I have seen Boxleitner portray the darker aspects in previous roles very effectively. But I must say that I believe his performance in this episode may end up being regarded as one of his best. Boxleitner was superb as a ruthless Sheridan, obsessed with not only learning the truth about his wife’s death, but also Morden’s survival and revenge. It is a pity that the Emmys rarely acknowledge excellent acting or writing in the Science-Fiction/Fantasy genre.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” may not be my favorite Season Two episode from “BABYLON 5”. But it is definitely my second favorite. And it is certainly one of my favorite episodes of the series. J. Michael Straczynski wrote an excellent episode about the consequences of grief for the series’ main character. Thanks to fine writing, first-rate direction and excellent performances from a talented cast – especially series lead Bruce Boxleitner.

 

 

R.I.P. Stephen Furst (1954-2017)

 

Top Five Favorite Episodes of “BABYLON 5” (Season Four: “No Surrender, No Retreat”)

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Below is a list of my top five (5) favorite episodes from Season Four (1996-1997) of “BABYLON 5”. Created by J. Michael Straczynski, the series starred Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle and Mira Furlan:

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “BABYLON 5” (SEASON FOUR: “NO SURRENDER, NO RETREAT”)

1- 4.15 No Surrender No Retreat

1. (4.15) “No Surrender, No Retreat” – Provoked by EarthForce President Clark’s latest actions, former Captain John J. Sheridan leads the White Star fleet against EarthForce to liberate Proxima 3.

2 - 4.17 The Face of the Enemy

2. (4.17) “The Face of the Enemy” – Thanks to his new employer, CEO William Edgars, former Security Chief Michael Garibaldi is faced with the decision of whether or not to betray Sheridan to EarthForce. Babylon 5’s Dr. Stephen Franklin and telepath Lyta Alexander arrive on Mars with a cargo of frozen telepaths for the final battles in the Earth Civil War.

3 - 4.05 The Long Night

3. (4.05) “The Long Night” – Sheridan make plans for the final strike against the Shadows and the Vorlons during the Shadow War. Meanwhile, Centauri Prime Ambassador Londo Mollari and his aide, Vir Cotto, make the final plans for assassinating Emperor Cartagia.

4 - 4.20 Endgame

4. (4.20) “Endgame” – Following his rescue by Garibaldi, Franklin and Lyta; Sheridan leads the final assault against President Clark’s forces with the help of his rescuers and the Mars Resistance.

5 - 4.14 Moments of Transition

5. (4.14) “Moments of Transition” – During the last days of the Minbari Civil War, the Warrior Caste demands the surrender of Ambassador Delenn and the Religious Caste. Meanwhille, Psi cop Alfred Bester makes an offer to an increasingly desperate Lyta and Sheridan receives horrible news from Ivanova.

HM - 4.06 Into the Fire

Honorable Mention: (4.06) “Into the Fire” – Sheridan stages a final showdown between the Vorlons and the Shadows at Coriana 6 toward the end of the Shadow War.

Top Five Favorite Episodes of “BABYLON 5” (Season Three: “Point of No Return”)

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Below is a list of my top five (5) favorite episodes from Season Three (1995-1996) of “BABYLON 5”. Created by J. Michael Straczynski, the series starred Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle and Mira Furlan:

 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “BABYLON 5” (SEASON THREE: “POINT OF NO RETURN”)

1 - 3.10 Severed Dreams

1. (3.10) “Severed Dreams” – In this outstanding episode, President Clark of Earth Alliance tries to seize control of Babylon 5 by force, forcing Sheridan and the command crew to take arms against their own government and initiating the Earth Civil War. The episode won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1997.

2 - 3.15 Interludes and Examinations

2. (3.15) “Interludes and Examinations” – Captain Sheridan struggles to gather a force against the Shadows, when the Shadow War begins in earnest. Ambassador Londo Mollari looks forward to a reunion with a past lover, and Dr. Franklin falls further into his stims addiction.

3 - 3.09 Point of No Return

3. (3.09) “Point of No Return” – When President Clark declares martial law throughout Earth Alliance, the command crew tries to stop Nightwatch from taking control of the station. Meanwhile, Ambassador Londo Mollari receives a prophecy from Emperor Turhan’s widow when she visits the station.

4 - 3.17 War Without End Part II

4. (3.17) “War Without End (Part 2)” – This is the second half of a two-part episode in which the station’s former commander, Jeffrey Sinclair, returns to participate in a mission vital to the future survival of Babylon 5 – traveling back in time to steal Babylon 4.

5 - 3.05 Voices of Authority

5. (3.05) “Voices of Authority” – Commander Susan Ivanova and Ranger Marcus Cole search for more of the First Ones with the help of Draal, while Sheridan comes under the scrutiny of the Nightwatch and Babylon 5’s new “political officer”.

“BABYLON 5” RETROSPECT: (1.11) “Survivors”

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“BABYLON 5” RETROSPECT: (1.11) “Survivors”

For the first time during its five-season run, the award-winning science-fiction series, “BABYLON 5”, focused on the major supporting character of Security Chief Michael Garibaldi. The name of the episode was Season One’s (1.11) “Survivors”. And I never realized until now, how much it foreshadowed future events in the series’ major story arc, until recently.

“Survivors” begins with the news network, ISN, announcing President Luis Santiago’s intention to pay a visit to Babylon 5 during his tour of Earth Alliance outposts. The president also intends to present a new wing of starfuries (fighter planes) to the station. While Garibaldi and Babylon 5’s second-in-command, Lieutenant-Commander Susan Ivanova, discuss Santiago’s upcoming visit, the station is rocked by an explosion inside its Cobra landing bay. An injured crewman named Nolan is tended in Medlab by medical officer, Dr. Stephen Franklin; while Garibaldi, Ivanova and Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (the station’s commanding officer) discuss the possibility of sabotage. Santiago’s security detail, led by one Major Lianna Kemmer, arrives on Babylon 5. Kemmer, who knew Garibaldi when she was a child, treats him coldly and demands that her detail investigate the Cobra Bay explosion. She and her aide Cutter, interrogate the badly wounded Nolan against Dr. Franklin’s wishes and manages to extract one name from him – Garibaldi’s – before his death. Kemmer demands that Sinclair put Garibaldi on suspension. And when Cutter finds the Cobra Bays blueprints and a bag of Centauri ducats inside Garibaldi’s quarters, Kemmer tries to arrest the security chief. But the latter makes his escape and tries to learn who had framed him.

Judging from the episode’s initial plot, one might be led to wonder what the title had to do with it. I mean . . . “Survivors” . . . in a tale about a political assassination plot? Once the episode moved into the details of Garibaldi’s history with Lianna Kemmer, I understood . . . completely. Babylon 5’s security chief had been a twenty-something Earthforce security guard at the ice-mining station on Europa, when he first met a shuttle pilot named Frank Kemmer and his family. Garibaldi had also developed a drinking problem to deal with the strains of working at the station. Garibaldi managed to make a few enemies on Europa, who decided to retaliate by rigging his friend’s shuttle pod to explode. Frank Kemmer was killed, Garibaldi was blamed and retreated further into the bottle. He eventually became estranged from Frank’s wife and daughter, Lianna, when he left Europa without any further word to them. Lianna grew resentful and angry over Garibaldi’s disappearance from the Kemmers’ lives. This continuing resentment spilled over into her willingness to quickly assume his guilt on the word of a dying terrorist. The presence of Lianna brought back painful memories of Europa for Garibaldi. His situation grew even worse after being named as a collaborator in the bombing and stripped of his position on the station. Once viewers became of Garibaldi’s history with Lianna, it became easy for me to see that the episode’s title referred to both characters.

I read a few reviews of “Survivors” online and noticed that most critics seemed to regard this episode as either a filler or an opportunity to flesh out the Michael Garibaldi character. On a certain level, they might be correct. The events of“Survivors” were never referred to again in the few episodes that followed, aside from a brief mention of the Cobra Bay bombing and President Santiago’s visit. And yet . . . I noticed something else. This episode also featured some major foreshadowing that not only played out by the end of this first season, but also as late as Season Five. One of the episode’s foreshadows featured Garibaldi’s alcoholism, which will rear its ugly head in future episodes. Many fans have never been able to deal with it. They were barely able to tolerate his alcoholism, as long as he was able to overcome it by the end of this episode. But when he succumbed to it again, they complained. Loudly. Apparently, they could not deal with him succumbing to it . . . again. And I never understood their attitude. Surely, they understood the struggles for any addict not to succumb again. But it seemed as if they could not deal with a guy like Garibaldi possessing such a major problem in the first place.

I must admit that it was interesting to watch someone like Garibaldi, an authority figure who knew more about the in and outs of Babylon 5 than anyone else, find himself stripped of his authority, neutralized from his friends and hunted down by an authority higher than the station’s commander, Sinclair. What made it even more interesting is that Garibaldi’s situation led him back to the bottle and at his lowest, before he could climb out of the gutter. It was also interesting to watch both Sinclair and Ivanova try their best to help Garibaldi. The commander came to Garibaldi’s rescue in a brief, yet rousing fight; while the latter was being beaten down by bounty hunters. And I found Ivanova’s subtle, yet brief threat to Lianna, when the latter tried to enforce her authority in the station’s Command and Control Center rather amusing. But in reality, there was very little they could do. It was Garibaldi who had to climb out of the bottle, do his own investigation and convince Lianna that he was an innocent man.

“Survivors” featured solid performances from the likes of Michael O’Hare, Claudia Christian, Richard Biggs, Tom Donaldson, David L. Crowley, Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik. But the real stars of this episode were Jerry Doyle as Garibaldi and Elaine Thomas as Lianna Kemmer. At first, I was not that sure about Thomas. She seemed stiff and a little uncomfortable in her early scenes. But once her character’s determination to hunt down Garibaldi became prominent, Thomas really grew into the role. And she did a marvelous job in her final scene. Jerry Doyle gave an outstanding performance as the increasingly besieged Garibaldi. Not only was he very effective in portraying his character’s growing desperation to escape the situation he found himself in, Doyle was surprising effective in portraying Garibaldi’s alcoholism. And I have noticed that portraying a drunken character does not seemed to be an easy thing to do.

I would never count “Survivors” as one of my favorite “BABYLON 5” episodes. I would not count it as one of my favorite Michael Garibaldi episodes. But I must admit that I have always managed to enjoy myself, while watching it. Unlike many other “BABYLON 5” fans, I have never been put off or outraged over the show’s portrayal of Garibaldi’s alcoholism. It gave Jerry Doyle an opportunity to really strut his stuff. And show runner J. Michael Straczynski managed to reap narrative gold out of this character trait – not only in this episode but also in future ones.

Top Five Favorite Episodes of “BABYLON 5” (Season Two: “The Coming of Shadows”)

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Below is a list of my top five (5) favorite episodes from Season Two (1994-1995) of “BABYLON 5”. Created by J. Michael Straczynski, the series starred Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle and Mira Furlan:

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “BABYLON 5” (SEASON TWO: “THE COMING OF SHADOWS”)

1-2.20 The Long Twilight Struggle

1. (2.20) “The Long, Twilight Struggle” – In this chilling episode, the Narn-Centauri War comes to an end with the Centauri war machine’s brutal defeat of the Narn homeworld, aided by the Shadows.

2-2.16 In the Shadow of Zhahadum

2. (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” – Babylon 5’s new commanding officer, Captain John Sheridan, discovers a connection between his late wife Anna and the mysterious courier Mr. Morden; and makes enemies of everyone around him when he has the latter detained.

3-2.18 Confessions and Lamentations

3. (2.18) “Confessions and Lamentations” – When a deadly plague threatening the Markab race with extinction reaches Babylon 5, Dr. Stephen Franklin and a Markab colleague, Dr. Lazarenn race against time to find a cure to save the Markab inhabitants on the space station in this heart wrenching episode.

4-2.15 And Now For a Word

4. (2.15) “And Now For a Word” – ISN reporter Cynthia Torqueman hosts a documentary that takes a look at the inhabitants of and life on Babylon 5, and the Narn-Centauri War raging beyond.

5-2.09 The Coming of Shadows

5. (2.09) “The Coming of Shadows” – This episode about the state visit of Centauri Emperor Turhan and the beginning of the Narn-Centauri War led to the series’ first Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1996.

“AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”: The Last Stand Against Mediocrity

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“AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”: THE LAST STAND AGAINST MEDIOCRITY

The age of serial drama or adventure is over. It is over. I first came to this conclusion after learning the dismal ratings for the last episode of ABC’s “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” called (1.10) “The Bridge”. I eventually learned that the show’s ratings were not as dismal as I had been led to believe.  But the series never became a top ratings earner. Ironically, my original statement is not a criticism directed at the series or its latest episode.

When I had learned that the ratings for “The Bridge” had dropped considerably last January, I was a bit upset. Many fans saw this as a sign of the show’s not-so-sensational quality. I realize that “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” is not flawless. There is no such thing as a flawless show. But I believe it has achieved its potential to become a first-rate one.  I also believe that the quality of its writing has grown with time. But judging from the reaction to the show’s first season, I can clearly see that American television viewers and critics now lack the patience to deal with a serial drama. They will not allow shows like “S.H.I.E.L.D.” to develop at a steady pace. They want instant perfection right off the bat.

I blame televisions series like “LOST”, the new “BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA”, and “ONCE UPON A TIME”. All three shows gave television viewers an excellent First Season that seemed to blow their minds. And thanks to shows like the one I had just listed, an excellent first season is what many viewers have come to expect from a TV show in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Superb shows like “BABYLON 5”“BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” and “ANGEL” did not have perfect first seasons. First first seasons were decent, but flawed. But in time, all three developed into excellent shows by their second and third seasons. And this is why I consider them among the finest series in television series. I am also reminded of cancelled shows like “FLASHFORWARD” and “THE EVENT”. I might as well be frank. The first half of their single seasons never struck me as exceptional or impressive. But both shows managed to develop in quality by the end of their seasons. And both shows promised great potential, as well. But the respective networks refused to give them a chance and cancelled them, instead of giving them a second season.

Considering that the writing for television series like “BABYLON 5” and “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” managed to slowly develop over time, I now realize that I can never consider shows like “LOST” and “ONCE UPON A TIME” among the best in television history. Sure, they were entertaining and revealed flashes of brilliant writing. Unfortunately, I believe that the writing for “LOST” flip-flopped in quality during its remaining five seasons. Despite some first-rate story arcs and plot twists over the years, it never reached the same level of quality that it had enjoyed during its first season. Many fans were dazzled by “ONCE UPON A TIME” during its first season. But the series is now in the midst of its third season. And I feel that eventually, it will suffer the same fate of inconsistent quality as “LOST” did.

The first season of “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” reminded of those first seasons for shows like “BABYLON 5” and“BUFFY”. Like the two now defunct shows, the first season for “S.H.I.E.L.D.” was obviously flawed. But I feel that it also reached its potential, especially in the story line regarding the agency’s battle with an organization called Centipede, which turned out to be an offshoot of a bigger enemy from “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”.  When the series first began, I could barely stand characters like Grant Ward, Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons. I found the former aggressively bland, and the other two rather annoying and out of place. The series has just finished its first season and I have grown to appreciate all three characters. This is due to their fleshing out as interesting characters, instead of remaining mere cliches.

For me, this is a sign of why I like the production styles of television producer/writers like Joss Whedon and J. Michael Straczynski. They do not try to wow the audience off the bat with a spectacular premiere or first season. Both Whedon and Straczynski, and other show creators like them, are willing to allow their stories and characters to develop with time … like true storytellers. But today’s television viewers do not seem to appreciate real storytelling. They do not appreciate a steady development of story and characters. They want to be dazzled right off the bat. And the creators of shows like “LOST” and “ONCE UPON A TIME” are willing to feed them dazzling premieres to automatically draw in viewers. Because of this new style of storytelling and lack of audience patience, I fear that “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” will not survive its second season, if its storytelling format remains.  And if it does last, I fear that the networks might force Whedon and his brother, Jed Whedon will transform the series into an episodic one that allow guest starring costume heroes to push the main characters into a back seat.

Oh well. There is nothing I can do about it. In fact, all I can do is sit back and speculate on the future of “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. If it ends up cancelled by the end of its second season or is transformed into episodic television; the show’s fate will become another step down in the quality of television writing – especially for the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I fear culture is in serious danger of going to the dogs.

 

 

Top Five Favorite Episodes of “BABYLON 5” (Season One: “Signs and Portents”)

Below is a list of my top five (5) favorite episodes from Season One (1994) of “BABYLON 5”. Created by J. Michael Straczynski, the series starred Michael O’Hare, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle and Mira Furlan: 

 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “BABYLON 5” (SEASON ONE: “SIGNS AND PORTENTS”)

1. (1.13) “Signs and Portents” – In this episode, a Centauri noble comes to Babylon 5 to transport an important Centauri relic in Londo’s possession back to the homeworld. And a mysterious man named Mr. Morden visits all the alien ambassadors in order to ask them an unusual question.

2. (1.08) “And the Sky Full of Stars” – Commander Sinclair is kidnapped and interrogated by two war veterans determined to prove that he had betrayed Earth at the Battle of the Line, during the Earth-Minbari War.

3. (1.20) “Babylon Squared” – The previous Babylon station, Babylon 4, reappears at the same place it had disappeared four years earlier. Sinclair and Garabaldi lead an evacuation team for the station’s crew. The story concludes in Season Three. Meanwhile, Ambassador Delenn is summoned by Minbar’s Grey Council and is asked to become the new leader.

4. (1.22) “Chrysalis” – In the season finale, Delenn commences upon a physical transformation, Ambassador Londo Mollari receives an offer from Mr. Morden to deal with a problem regarding the Narns, and Garabaldi uncovers a deadly conspiracy against the President of Earth Alliance.

5. (1.12) “By Any Means Necessary” – Following a fatal accident in the station’s docking bay, an increasingly exhausted Sinclair is forced to deal with a potential labor uprising. And Ambassador G’Kar has to get a replacement G’Quan-Eth plant for an important religious ceremony.

Understanding “BABYLON FIVE” (4.06) “Into the Fire”

UNDERSTANDING “BABYLON FIVE” (4.06) “INTO THE FIRE”

I have seen the Season Four episode, (4.06) “Into the Fire” on numerous occasions, since I first started watching “BABYLON 5”some thirteen years ago. 

My opinion of “Into the Fire” had always been somewhat lukewarm in the past. When I first saw it, I assumed it would be another episode that featured a large-scale battle – similar to episodes like (1.13) “Signs and Portents”(3.10) “Severed Dreams” and(4.15) “No Surrender, No Retreat”. There were battle sequences featured in “Into the Fire”, but to the extent that I would consider it an action-heavy episode.

Sue me. I was young and stupid in those days. I thought a top-notch “BABYLON FIVE” episode should always consist of a large-scale battle. But I finally saw the light. I finally understood what “Into the Fire” was really about. Well, I take that back. I have always understood since I first saw it. But I was so disappointed by the lack of a real battle that I allowed the message to pass over my head.

But not this time. Anticipating to be bored out of my mind, I finally allowed J. Michael Straczynski’s message to filter through. I finally understood and accepted the messages about parental or colonial figures letting go and allowing the young – whether they were individuals or nations to grow in their own ways. And in the end, it brought tears to my eyes. Much to my surprise. Thank you Mr. Straczynski for a first-rate television episode. And please accept my apologies for allowing so many years to pass before finally getting the message.

“THOR” (2011) Review

 

“THOR” (2011) Review

My knowledge of European-based mythology is very sketchy. I am familiar with some figures of both the Greek and Roman mythologies. But my knowledge of Norse mythology is even less. As for the many characters from Marvel Comics, I barely knew about any of them – aside from “SPIDER-MAN”, until the past decade. One can only imagine my surprise when I learned that one of Marvel’s more successful super heroes was the Norse god, Thor. 

Based upon the Norse mythology and the Marvel Comics character, “THOR” is an origin tale about the God of Thunder (and several other things), and how he ends up on Earth and becomes affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D. The story begins in New Mexico, when scientist Jane Foster, her assistant Darcy Lewis and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig stumble across a figure that has tumbled from a wormhole in the sky. That figure turns out to be Thor, the Norse god that was exiled by his father, Odin, king of Asgard.

Earlier, Thor had been preparing to ascend to the throne of Asgard, but his ceremony was interrupted when Frost Giants attempted to retrieve the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters, which had been taken by Odin in an earlier war. Against Odin’s order, Thor traveled to Jotunheim, the Frost Giants’ realm, to confront their leader Laufey; accompanied by his brother Loki, childhood friend Sif and the Warriors Three – Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun. A battle ensued until Odin intervened to save the Asgardians, which destroyed the fragile truce between the two races. For Thor’s arrogance, Odin stripped his son of godly power and exiled the latter to Earth, accompanied by Thor’s hammer Mjolnir — the source of his power, now protected by a spell to allow only the worthy to wield it.

No one was more surprised than me upon learning that actor/director Kenneth Branaugh had manned the helm for“THOR”. Pop culture movie franchises were nothing new to him. After all, he had appeared in 2002’s “HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS”. But directing an adaptation of a comic book series? Mind you, “Thor” is a different kettle of fish in compare to . . . say “Spider-Man”“The Fantastic Four” or “Iron Man”. After all, Thor originated as a figure in Norse mythology. However, I must admit that I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of a known Shakespearean actor directing a comic book hero movie.

In the end, I believe that Branaugh did a pretty good job. “THOR” turned out to be a solid tale filled with mythology, some first-rate acting, family drama, comedy and action. The best aspect of “THOR” was to me – hands down – the family drama surrounding the main hero and his relationships with his father Odin and his younger brother, Loki. This family drama originated in Thor’s arrogant nature and brother Loki’s discovery that he was an orphan that Odin had discovered in the Frost Giants realm. Despite his discovery that he was a Frost Giant instead of an Asgardian, Loki viewed Thor as an unsuitable heir to the Asgard throne and used Thor’s exile to muscle his way to the throne . . . and, uh Odin’s heart.

Another aspect of “THOR” I found interesting was the story line about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s investigation into the wormhole that delivered Thor to Earth and his hammer Mjolnir, which is stuck in the middle of the New Mexican desert like Excalibur. The first encounter between the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor during a rainy evening also provided some interesting action. This sequence not only featured a brutal fight to the now mortal Thor and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and a cameo appearance by future Avenger member, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye.

The New Mexico sequences provided most of the comedy featured in “THOR”. The former Norse god’s interactions with Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, Darcy Lewis and the locals of the New Mexico town where they resided. Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne’s screenplay not only provided a good deal of slapstick humor and witty one-liners for the Darcy Lewis character, but also a variation on the “fish out of water” theme.

And If there is one thing that the movie did shine was its production designs and cinematography. Bo Welch did a excellent job in recapturing the rugged setting of the small New Mexican town and the Frost Giants’ realm of Jotunheim, featured in the film. But he did a superb job in his design of Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods. Asgard possessed a sleek, colorful and over-the-top quality that reminded me of what the Art Deco style would look in the hands of Hollywood craftsmen in the 1930s and 40s. And Haris Zambarloukos’ photography did great justice to both settings, especially Welch’s designs for Asgard. Even though I found the movie’s theme somewhat conflicting, I must admit that I found Paul Rubell’s editing rather smooth and well done in both the action sequences and the jumps between Asgard and New Mexico.

However, I have yet to encounter a movie that I would consider perfect. And “THOR” was far from perfect. The film’s main problem was that it seemed to have a conflicting quality about it. Because the movie’s setting constantly moved from Asgard to New Mexico and back, it ended up striking me as a mixture of “CLASH OF THE TITANS” and“STARMAN”. And this conflicting style did not seem to balance very well. I could have settled for “THOR” beginning its story in Asgard and remaining in New Mexico until the last scene. Unfortunately, most of the movie’s more important action occurred in Asgard, leaving the New Mexico sequences to bear the brunt of most of the comedy. By the time the movie’s last scene ended, I could not tell whether this was a movie about mythological gods or a comic book hero.“THOR” was a pretty good movie, but it did not exactly rock my boat. I found the story a bit mediocre and conventional. And the problem, if I must be honest, rested with Marvel Comics’ decision to create a comic series about a well-established mythological figure, instead of a new and original character.

Also, there were a few performances that failed to impress me. I realize that the three actors and one actress that portrayed Thor’s Asgardian friends – Sif and the Warriors Three – were very popular with moviegoers. Unfortunately, not only did they fail to impress me, I found them rather uninteresting. Poor Rene Russo. Within a decade she went from leading lady to a minor character actress, stuck in the thankless and nothing role of Thor’s stepmother, Frigga. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye was really wasted in this film. In fact, he did nothing at all, except pose with a bow and arrow. I realize that he will appear as one of the Avengers in the upcoming 2012 film, but he was never allowed to strut his stuff like Scarlett Johanssen in “IRON MAN 2”.

Aside from the performances I had earlier mentioned, “THOR” seemed blessed with a first-rate cast. I was surprised to learn that Chris Hemsworth had portrayed James T. Kirk’s doomed father in the 2009 movie, “STAR TREK”. His George Kirk had been so dull. Fortunately, portraying Thor gave him the opportunity to shine in a complex role that developed from an arrogant and over-privileged prince with an aggressive sense of self to a more compassionate and wiser man who had fallen in love. For an actor with only eight or nine years of acting experience – most of them on television – Hemsworth more than held his own against the likes of Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins. And those scenes that featured Thor’s encounters with Jane’s van conveyed Hemsworth’s talent for physical slapstick humor. As an on-screen fighter, he struck me as a bit crude, but I am certain that he will improve with time. Natalie Portman gave a charming and humorous portrayal of Dr. Jane Foster, the astrophysicist who is not only obsessed with her work, but eventually finds love with Thor. Mind you, I did not find her character particularly exceptional. But I am glad to say that Portman tried all she could to make Jane an interesting personality. But one of the two best performances came from Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, Thor’s resentful and conniving younger brother. Loki was definitely the movie’s main villain. The joke he had played (luring three Frost Giants to the chamber that held the Casket of Ancient Winters) on Thor’s ascension ceremony not only led him to the discovery that he was an abandoned Frost Giant infant taken by Odin, but also gave him the opportunity to discredit Thor and take the latter’s position as Odin’s more cherished son. Mind you, I cannot say that Hiddleston conveyed Loki’s mischievous sense of humor effectively. But he did handle Loki’s conniving nature, jealousy toward Thor and outrage over the story behind his true nature with great skill and subtlety.

Other outstanding performances came from Idris Elba, who portrayed Asgard’s gatekeeper, Hemidall; Kat Dennings as Jane’s sardonic assistant Darcy Lewis; Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson; and Colm Feore as Laufey, King of the Frost Giants (and Loki’s real father). I was amazed at how Elba managed to convey all of Hemidall’s emotions and intelligence with very limited movement. No wonder he became very popular with many of the film’s characters. And Colm Feore managed to do something quite similar. He conveyed all of Laufey’s malice and secrecy behind a ton of body makeup. Aside from Hemsworth’s foray into slapstick, the New Mexico sequences featured a deliciously sly and humorous performance by Kat Dennings, who portrayed Darcy. And it was great to see Clark Gregg reprise the role of Phil Coulson for the third time (he made two earlier performances in the two IRON MAN movies). Thankfully, the movie’s script allowed him to be more complex and increasingly sardonic, allowing Gregg to really show his acting chops. Finally, the movie benefited from solid performances by Anthony Hopkins’ majestic portrayal of Odin, Thor’s father, Stellan Skarsgård as Jane’s dependable and practical mentor, Dr. Eric Selvig and Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the movie’s post-credits sequence.

In conclusion, “THOR” proved to be an entertaining movie and another step toward “THE AVENGERS”, the big Marvel Comics saga for 2012. The movie provided solid direction from Kenneth Branaugh and excellent performances from most of the cast. But the movie’s conflicting genre(s) and somewhat mediocre story led me to realize that I would never consider it to be one of the outstanding releases from Marvel Studios.

“THE CHANGELING” (2008) Review

”CHANGELING” (2008) Review

Set in Los Angeles of the late 1920s, ”CHANGELING” is based upon a true story about a single mother who realized that the boy returned to her after a kidnapping is not her son. After confronting the city authorities, they vilified her as delusional and an unfit mother. The movie’s events were related to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, an infamous kidnapping and murder case that was uncovered in 1928. 

J. Michael Straczynski, creator and producer of the Award winning science-fiction television series, ”BABYLON 5”, had been tipped off by a contact at the Los Angeles City Hall about the case of Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. He wrote a screenplay based upon the case and submitted it Brian Grazer and Ron Howard of Imagine Entertainment. Howard was slated to direct the film. But due to a scheduling conflict, Howard was unable to accept the assignment and it was offered to Clint Eastwood. Academy Award winning actress Angelina Jolie was cast as the anguished mother, Christine Collins. The cast also included John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Amy Ryan, Jason Butler Harner, Colm Feore, and Geoff Pierson.

I might as well say it. I really enjoyed ”CHANGELING”. I enjoyed it more than I thought possible. When I first learned about the movie, I thought it would end up as some missing child story with a science-fiction twist. After all, the movie had been scripted by Straczynski. I eventually discovered that the movie was simply based upon a true life crime that occurred in Los Angeles in the late 1920s. And since the movie, which happened to be two hours and 41 minutes long, was directed by Clint Eastwood . . . well, I feared that it would turn into another one of his slow-paced films that would leave me struggling to stay conscious. Thankfully, it did not happen. As he had done in ”FLAGS OF OUR FATHER”, Eastwood managed to forego his usual snail-like pacing and do Straczynski’s superb script justice with what I believe is one of his best works.

”CHANGELING” is a very engrossing story about single mother Christine Collins’ (Jolie) efforts to find her missing son Walter and deal with the antipathy and lack of interest of the Los Angeles Police Department. Collins’ interactions with the LAPD and especially Police Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) were especially fascinating. The story took an even darker tone when a more competent police officer named Detective Ybarra (Kelly) made a connection to the disappearance of Collins’ son to a possible case involving a serial killer of young boys. Judging from what I have read about Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, Eastwood and Straczynski did a superb job of recapturing both the era and the actual case. Mind you, the movie is not completely accurate. After all, Jolie must be at least 15 years younger than the real Christine Collins was in 1928. But I am speaking of a Hollywood film, not a documentary.

Judging by the excellent performances in the film, it was easy for me to see that the cast really benefitted from Eastwood’s direction and Straczynski’s script. But to be honest, not even the best director or script could ever guarantee a good performance. Which is why I feel that ”CHANGELING” was very lucky in its cast . . . especially with its leading lady. Despite winning two Golden Globe awards, a Screen Actors Guild award and an Oscar, Angelina Jolie has never really developed a reputation as a first-rate actress. Sometimes I wonder if the media and the public are so blinded by her looks and image that they fail to realize how truly talented she is. I would certainly rate Christine Collins as one of Jolie’s best performances. She managed to completely submerge into her role of the ladylike Mrs. Collins who has to overcome her natural reticence to resist the L.A.P.D.’s lie that the boy returned to her some five months after her son’s disappearance is the latter. Although most moviegoers and critics tend to be impressed by emotional and showy performances, I tend to be impressed by more subtle acting. And there are two scenes that featured Jolie at her subtle best – one featured an interview Collins had with an analyst inside a city psychiatric ward and the other centered around Captain Jones’ last efforts to convince her that the boy found in Illinois and delivered to her was her son Walter. I had feared that the Hollywood community would overlook her performance and fail to give her a nomination.  Thankfully, Jolie managed to earn a slew of acting nominations for her performance . . . including Academy Award and Golden Globe nods.

Jolie received strong support from four actors in particular – John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Jason Butler Harner. Malkovich gave a solid performance as a Los Angeles evangelist named Reverend Gustav Briegleb who has been outspoken against the Los Angeles Police Department’s incompetence and corruption. His soliloquy about the police department not only gave me chills, it also reminded me that not much in Los Angeles politics have not changed in eighty years. In his chilling performance as Police Captain J.J. Jones, Jeffrey Donovan proved his versatility as an actor in a performance that bordered on subtle intimidation. Michael Kelly portrayed Detective Ybarra, the L.A. cop who discovered the link between Walter Collins and a serial killer . . . and he did so with a solid performance that matched Malkovich’s. The one actor who really impressed me was Jason Butler Harner, who gave a creepy performance as serial killer Gordon Northcott. The filmmakers had hired Harner due to the latter’s physical resemblance to the real Northcott. Physical resemblance aside, the actor’s performance could have easily become over-the-top. But Harner managed to inject a strong creepiness into the role without turning the character into a caricature.

I did have a few quibbles about ”CHANGELING”. Earlier I had marveled at the movie’s pacing despite Eastwood’s role as director and the 141 minute running time. And I stand by every word. But I must admit there was one point in the film in which it threatened to drag . . . namely the last fifteen or twenty minutes. One could suggest that the movie’s finale could have easily been deleted. But considering what had been revealed in those final moments, I doubt that would have been wise. One last quibble I had was Oscar nominee Amy Ryan’s role as a prostitute and fellow inmate of Collins’ at a city psychiatric ward. The filmmakers might as well have credited her appearance as a cameo. Despite Ryan’s excellent performance, her appearance in the film struck me nothing more than a waste of time.

No movie is perfect and as I had pointed out, ”CHANGELING” had a few imperfections. But in the end it turned out to be a fascinating look into a period in the history of Los Angeles. Thanks to Eastwood’s direction, Straczynski’s script, Angelina Jolie and a very talented supporting cast; ”CHANGELING” turned out to be an engrossing tale of crime and corruption that has already made my list of favorite movies for 2008.