RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “The Coming of Shadows” (Season 2, Episode 9)

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Ok, definitely last week was a low ebb for me. The Talia Trilogy of Tedium really wore me down, and I really was ready to chuck the whole thing, not because it’s a bad show, but simply because it’s so much a product of its time that it’s kind of hard to rave about stuff that…eh. You know what? Not gonna’ go through that again. Suffice to say: anything involving Talia Winters in specific, or Human Telepaths in general, kinda kills this show. It’s a neat idea, I’m glad they tried it, but it’s easy to see which cylinder isn’t firing.

But today I’m recharged! Why? Well, partially because I’m listening to The English Beat’s greatest hits, which always perks me up (Seriously: Go listen to their cover of “Tears of a Clown!” Is that not the best thing in the history of ever?), but also because “The Coming of Shadows” may well be the best episode of the second season. Certainly it’s the best episode in the first half of the second season.

With the significant cast changes at the end of the first season (two gone, two added, and one recast badly), and the *awful* season opener, there has been a sense of - if I’m polite - the new cast getting settled in. If I’m more accurate, it feels like spinning our wheels. The Talia Trilogy really was the low ebb. Tonight, though, we finally feel like the tires are getting some traction! And suddenly I’m reborn, remembering how great this show can be when it’s got a mind to.

PLAY BY PLAY

On Centauri Prime, the Centauri Emperor has decided to go to Babylon 5. He leaves his Prime Minister behind, and leaves with his retinue of advisors, bodyguards, and hot bald-headed telepath chicks. This last is interestingly cool: 4 telepathic chicks who are raised together from birth, continually in contact with each other. When the emperor travels, two stay with the court, and two go with him, so what one sees, all see. On the station, G’kar learns the Emperor is coming, and plans to kill him.

Upon arrival, the Emperor enjoys an (Offscreen) tour, broods over never having seen a Vorlon - “I have heard much about them that is strange” - and seems unexpectedly interested in the choices people have made. He reflects that he has really never made a choice in his life, he’s just played a part, but he’s making one now. He’s going to make an announcement.

Alas, en rout to do so, he keels over - he’s a very old man…er…Centauri - thus foiling G’kar’s assassination attempt. G’kar is furious. Londo is somewhat relieved. You see, Londo’s old buddy, Lord Refa, has been planning to use the Emperor’s visit as a means of furthering his cabal’s plans. He’s had “Psycholinguists” composing a firey, yet dignified speech for Londo, which will detail where their people have gone wrong, and make predictions for what will go wrong next. This will make the emperor look bad, but when the predictions come true (Sabotage is planned) it will make Londo and Refa’s party look good. And the emperor is old, so…

Londo is, of course, uncomfortable with this but the Emperor’s collapse has given their adversaries in the court a chance to leap ahead. Londo sends Vir to look for Morden.

“Londo, don’t do this.”
“I don’t have any choice.”
“Yes, you do. Look, I know you never listen to me, but just this one time, listen: do not do this!”
“Are you going to get Mr. Morden, or do I have to go do it myself.”
“[Long pause] No, I’ll do it. But someday I’m going to remind you of this conversation, and maybe then you’ll understand.”

There is very much a sense that Londo has crossed a line he can no longer un-cross.

The Emperor recovers somewhat, and gives Dr. Franklin a message that he doesn’t trust his own people to deliver. Franklin goes to G’kar’s quarters and says simply that the Emperor is sorry, that he wanted, at the end of his life, to come to stand alongside a Narn in neutral space and publicly say “I’m sorry.” Sorry for what my people did to yours, sorry for what the imperial family did in particular, sorry for the war, the bloodshed, and so on. He went on to say that there is no chance for either of their people to move forward until one of them can stand up and say “We were wrong,” which was all he wanted to do: the only actual choice he ever made in his life.

G’kar is staggered. Watch his face, even with all that latex on, it’s an amazing scene.

Londo dreams: The Narn attack on Ragesh III back in episode 1, a star with a creepy hand reaching out of it, Londo looking up in a blue sky and seeing those shadow ships flying overhead, himself being crowned emperor, himself and old, sick man on the throne, an old, crazy-looking G’kar with an eye patch, and G’kar killing Londo. He wakes with a start.

The Shadows attack a Narn colony, as Londo asked of them. They leave just as one of Refa’s groups turn up, and another Narn fighter patrol is heading home. Seeing the carnage, they think the Centauri did it, which in a roundabout way they did. G’kar doesn’t know this yet, though: he buttonholes Londo on the Zocalo, buys him a drink, and says that he’s shocked to discover that the Centauri do still have a glimmer of decency in their genetic code. It’s not much to build on, but for the first time in his life, G’kar actually has hope of a *better* tomorrow. He drinks a toast “To the health of your emperor, and perhaps to yours as well.”

“Thank you,” says Londo. Again: watch the two of them: this is a great scene. Very well played. You can see the excitement oozing off of Andreas Katsulas and turning to guilt the moment it touches Peter Jurissic.

Kosh comes to visit the Emperor, the first time we’ve seen him this year. “How will it end?” The emperor asks. “In fire,” Kosh replies, giving an unexpectedly straight answer.

Of course it all comes out. G’kar realizes Londo knew, and he goes crazy eight bonkers, trying to bust into his quarters and kill him. Security and Sheridan stop him, convince him that revenge/suicide isn’t going to help the quarter million civilian Narn who are now prisoners of the Centauri. G’kar breaks down crying. This scene isn’t quite as good as it could have been, I think because of the awkward blocking when the actor lunges at the wall. Still, everything up to that point is great, particularly G’kars manic horror as he snarls “They’re going to kill everyone!” Meanwhile, back home on Centauri Prime, Refa’s men kill the Prime Minister.

Refa informs us that the massacre at the Narn colony has managed to neutralize their competitors in the court, and they need to stage a little press conference of sorts. Refa tells the Emperor about the attack, how everything is finally back on track, and asks for the emperor’s blessing. He waves him away and beckons Londo in. He whispers something in his hear, then dies. Londo looks shocked, gets up, and lies: “Good! Reclaim our destiny! Take our people back to the stars!” Satisfied this is true, the Emperor’s telepaths leave.

Refa: “What did he say, really?”
Londo: “He said we are both damned, you and I.”
Refa: “Well, it’s a small enough price to pay for immortality.”

Sheridan visit’s a nearly catatonic G’kar, asking him to come to the Advisory Council session, saying he might have a plan to save the civilians. G’kar thanks him - barely a whisper - for stopping him from killing Londo. Again: Brilliantly acted scene. I like that Sheridan just nods and leaves the room, he doesn’t spoil it by talking.

In the council session, Londo insists that the Narns will be enslaved. Sheridan is able to bluster him out of this by threatening to send in Earthforce Observers to check for conditions, question survivors, and find out how the base was overcome so quickly. “And rest assured, if we interview survivors, we *will* find out how that happened. You may be able to take out some civilian vessels, but I’d like to see you try that with Earthforce transports.” Londo backs down, and agrees to let the Civilians go. He doesn’t want his secret known. I'm 80% sure Sheridan is bluffing. I don't think he's got any right to send in observers, and I don't think Earthforce would back him.

G’kar announces that as of two hours ago, his government formally declared war on the Centauri.

And just like that, Babylon 5’s mission of peace in the galaxy has failed. And yet seventy-nine episodes remain…

Also: Sinclair makes an unexpected cameo appearance, and introduces a new secret organization: The Rangers.

Vir asks Londo why he didn’t ask for a reasignment to the Imperial Court. “It would have put you in a great position to be emperor someday. That’s what you want, isn’t it?” Cue: brief flash of Londo dying at G’kar’s hands.
“No, I have no interest in becoming emperor,” Londo says. “I prefer to work behind the scenes. The rewards are almost as great, and the risk is much less.”

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

The Centauri Emperor was played by Turhan Bey, the Austrian actor of Turkish descent. He was a leading man in romance flicks in the 40s/50s, and when he got too old for those parts, he had a distinguished career as an art photographer. He’s still alive, by the way. 90 as of this review. And, man, he is *perfect.* This would have been an amazingly easy part to screw up: an old man babbling nonsense dialog for an hour. The ep rises or falls on how well *he* does his role, and he’s pretty amazing. He’s got just the right dash of exotic and noble. He plays an interesting balance of feebleness of body and strength of will. You instantly like him, because there’s just a touch of little kid in his ancient form. When he collapses in that hallway, you really do feel bad for him. And you keep feeling bad for him, since Londo and Refa keep twisting the knife in the poor old man.

Nice touch: when he collapses, he grabs towards two parts on his chest, not just the center of it. This is because the Centauri have two hearts, in different places.

Though the Emperor is unnamed here, Mr. Bey was such a dream to work with that the character was retro named “Emperor Turhan” whenever he comes up in dialog from this episode on out.

The Prime Minister was played by Malachi Throne (Coolest. Real. Name. Ever.) Throne has a zillion genre credits, including three of the four shows in the Irwiniad (I just invented that name now), Mission: Impossible, “False Face” in Batman, and Commodore Mendez in TOS. He also did a Phase 2 episode. He’s pretty much in every show of note in the ’60s. Though unnamed here, the Prime Minister was likewise retro named “Malachai.”

Sheridan’s “Way of the warrior” bit is hokey as heck, but he’s pretty solid in the rest of the ep. He’s sort of a jerk to G’kar early on, but he totally goes out of his way to help him - twice - in the end, even though he doesn’t like G’kar at all. When he sees how messed up the Narn is in his quarters, he’s clearly slightly moved.

Londo’s dream is genuinely creepy. We know from Episode 1 that Centauri have prescient, fated death dreams, and we know that Londo had been dreaming of G’kar killing him his whole life, and only recognized G’kar as his (Eventual) assassin when he first came to B5. We only heard about it in that ep, we see it here. Given the prescience, we can assume much of the rest of this is fated as well. How does G’kar lose an eye? How does Londo become emperor? Why are the shadow ships in the sky? From this point on, the G’kar/Londo story - which is basically the axis of the B5 universe itself - is a series of puzzle pieces slotting themselves into place. See another item you know and - yikes! I didn’t see that coming, even though they told me about it a year ago! It’s fun!

Big cast tonight: Sheridan, Ivonova, Garibaldi, Franklin, G’kar, Londo, Vir, and Delenn. Despite appearing several times on screen, she’s only got one line tonight. Among the also-rans: Refa, Zac, and Sinclair. Na’Toth and Morden get name checks, but don’t appear. No Lennier nor Warren (Who?) Keffer.

Not only were the Rangers introduced, but they actually provided useful information, linking the Centauri with the Shadows, and confirming for Sheridan, Ivonova, and Garibaldi, that the shadows actually exist. Which sets up a great line, even if an obvious one: Sinclair: “Watch out for shadows, Michael. They move when you’re not looking.”

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Man, this is such a great episode that even conservative TREKIES would like it!

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