Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Babylon 5 Review: "The Parliament of Dreams"

Watching this was definitely a pleasant surprise. All I remembered about it was the festival of religion, and the final scene where Sinclair represents humanity through its diversity of religions. That really missed the point. What we had instead was a vehicle for introducing important secondary characters Na'Toth and Catherine Sakai, as well as making a number of meaningful allusions to the themes upon which the series built, with important foreshadowing thrown in for good measure. As a standalone it's still pedestrian, but as part of a larger whole, it worked just fine.

The new characters first. In the early 1990's, Star Trek and Babylon 5 both did a lot to break the mold of traditional science fiction female character types. DS9 had Kira and Dax as regulars, which set the stage for Torres and Janeway on Voyager. Babylon 5 gave us Ivanova, Talia, Delenn, and later Lyta and Lochley as regulars, as well as secondary characters. In addition to Na'Toth and Catherine, there was Tessa from seasons four and five, and probably others I can't remember offhand.

The issue with Na'Toth and Catherine, however, is that both were simply dropped very early in the series. Na'Toth would be revisited in season five's "A Tragedy of Telepaths"; dealing with Catherine would be left to JMS's wife in her novel To Dream in the City of Sorrows. As I've become acquainted with both from rewatching season one, I'll definitely miss them when next I see later years, as they add a lot to an otherwise dreary year.

The most interesting plot on its own terms is Sinclair and Catherine's relationship. JMS took the innovative step of actually writing his sci fi commander as a real person, and that, together with the great chemistry of the actors, made this relationship feel more genuine after a single episode than some other shows accomplish over an entire season or more. Garibaldi is also aware of what's going on, and his interactions with Sinclair again strike me as real, and let us see that the two are genuinely old friends without having one of them state it openly.

The plot about the assassin after G'Kar didn't work as well for me, mainly because I have trouble relating to G'Kar as a militant nationalist. (To be honest, I think the Narns as a whole were written with a deliberately different tone in later seasons, about which I'll say more later.) You do see a bit of difference between him and Londo, however. G'Kar's position is somewhat analogous to Londo's in "Born to the Purple," but where Londo the experience court operator cuts a deal with Sinclair, G'Kar the former resistance fighter trusts no one and seeks allies in the underworld. As with Londo's purple files, G'Kar's time on "the council" never plays a major role, and the whole point of this is to let us see Na'Toth as a strong, clever, capable, and outspoken aide who is nonetheless loyal to her assignment.

In the middle of all this, Lennier shows up, so green he won't even look at Delenn. The real Minbari contribution to this episode, however, is their religious ceremony. I gather that B5 fans used to mine this for clues the way Harry Potter fans did with the chess game at the end of Sorcerer's Stone, and JMS did say it was significant. I haven't gone over it and the rest of the series thoroughly yet, but the most obvious significance surrounds Sinclair. The fact it doubles as a marriage ceremony lends further support that had he stayed as commander, Delenn and Sinclair would have married and Catherine would have been lost on a survey mission "out on the rim." The fact the ceremony recounts Valen forming the Grey Council is also significant given the events of the Battle of the Line and "War Without End."

The parallels with Christianity in the Minbari ceremony are striking. First is the fact this is a meal commemorating the formation of a community. Beyond that is the stuff about victory that is seen as defeat and death that brings renewal. I don't immediately see significance in that, but could be wrong. "The one who is to come," is part of the Minbari prophecy we hear so much about, and invokes "the one" whom we first hear about from Zathras in "Babylon Squared." There's also: "This is your death. The death of flesh. The death of pain." This may set up G'Kar's memorable insight from his Bodh Gaya: "Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams." I'd need to rewatch later seasons to see if other aspects of G'Kar's path relate to the Minbari invocations, setting up a situation in which this ceremony shows something of where the characters are now, as opposed to where the show's philosophy eventually points.

The Centauri religious ceremony is played for laughs. I liked Vir's, "He has become one with his inner self." As I was reminded by this, however, it contains a serious point regarding the Xon. In the show's backstory, the initial Centauri expansion followed directly on the defeat of the originally oppressive Xon, thus making the Centauri part of the cycle where violence and oppression breeds more violence and oppression, a cycle currently playing out in the Narn expansion after Centauri oppression. Somebody apparently identified this as a pattern in Babylonian history, which I suspect overstates matters, but may do for discussing the show, as JMS said in a DVD commentary track that he named the station because of the series arc's resemblance to Babylonian history and mythology. It's also related to the theme of Mark Twain's "The War Prayer," which provided the title to another season one outing and clearly influence the show's arc.

Yet another point is Sinclair's affection for Tennyson's "Ulysses." (What are the same chances both B5 commanders would frequently quote that work?) This has added meaning after Garibaldi's conversation with Sinclair at the end of "Infection." The section he listens to here, about roaming with a hungry heart, clearly applies to his relationship with Catherine and desire to try and make it work out with her. As JMS says on the commentary track to "Chrysalis," she has been the one true love of his life, regardless of any complications.

All this makes me forget about the cheesy ending where representatives of all human religions are lined up as a demonstration of diversity. Taken as a whole, the show emphasizes on several occasions that at our best, humans have a gift for building communities. Furthermore, the show does make religious diversity a feature of Narn culture, and the idea is probably simply inapplicable to the polytheistic Centauri or the Minbari with their special history. Furthermore, the show also makes "at our best" a meaningful condition. It's telling that the lines Starfleet personnel on Star Trek use to describe "evolved humanity" turn up on B5 only in the mouths of President Clark's propagandists. Since Sinclair seems to regard the entire celebration as cheesy, I can buy he'd do something like this.

So where does this leave us? Like I say, a lot of this episode works best in the context of the broader series, which makes it hard to judge. On the whole, I'd put it the slightest bit below "Mind War," for a weak rather than solid 7/10.



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