Babylon 5 – ‘Sleeping in Light’

Twitter reminded me that today is the twentieth broadcast anniversary of the final episode of Babylon 5, ‘Sleeping in Light‘. The episode is set twenty years in the future and follows John Sheridan and his friends as they prepare for his death while, at the same time, the station is being decommissioned.

I remember crying all day after watching ‘Sleeping in Light’. But I was crying in a good ‘I’m sad but satisfied’ kind of way. If I have any criticism of the episode, I feel it’s a little self-indulgent about Sheridan. I would also have very much liked to find out what happened to Lyta and Lennier, but they may have been planning to tell those stories in spin-offs and sequels that never happened. Still, it’s a beautiful finale that respects the integrity of the characters and the story and, overall, feels right.

I owe a lot to Babylon 5. It got me through some difficult times in my early twenties. At one point, I had terrible insomnia and the only way I could get to sleep was to put on an episode and watch until I dropped off.

As well as being an absolute masterpiece of character-driven arc storytelling, I think Babylon 5 proves that a strong creator can engage thoughtfully with the fans and maintain artistic integrity, without ever becoming emotionally manipulative, exploitative or even abusive.

Now that it really is twenty years later, Babylon 5 is still a story I can return to and rely on to be there for me when I need it and that’s really precious.

Perhaps its time for a re-watch.

A Babylon 5 Drinking Game

Andy and I have been rewatching Babylon 5 and have found ourselves shouting “drink” at certain moments in the show.  Thus, we discovered that a drinking game had naturally evolved from our B5 rewatch.

Take a drink when:

1. Someone says “a 1,000 years ago”.

2. Twice if it’s Delenn

3. Someone explains the Minbari caste system

4. Someone name checks Valen

5. The Minbari overeact and have a needlessly extreme/violent response to a problem

6. Twice if it’s Delenn

7. Someone says “Minbari do not lie”

8. Twice if a Minbari lies or deliberately deceives someone

9. Someone says “Minbari do not kill Minbari”

10.  Twice if a Minbari tries to kill another Minbari

11.  Lenier acts kind of stalkerish around Delenn

12.  Ambassador Kosh anwers “yes” or “no” to a question that doesn’t have a “yes” or “no” answer

13.  Ambassador Kosh is outside of his encounter suit

14. Commander Sinclair hardly blinks throughout a scene

15. Commander Sinclair blinks way too much during a scene

16. Someone uses the word “Hell”

17. Twice if they anthropomorphise hell, e.g. “Hell is coming right behind me”.

18. Three times it’s Mr Garibaldi

19. Mr Bester goads Mr Garibaldi

20. Mr Bester is prevented from telepathically scanning people

21. Someone threatens violence towards Mr Bester

22. Ivanova threatens someone with violence

23.  Twice if it’s Mr Bester

24. Someone tries to hit on Ivanova

25. Twice if it’s Talia Winters

26. Lyta Alexander’s eyes turn black … or gold

27. Someone has a really baaaaad telepathic experience

28. Marcus offers to sacrifice himself

29. Twice if Marcus succeeds in sacrificing himself

30. John Sheridan quotes his Dad

31. John Sheridan uses his quick thinking to save everyone from almost certain death

32. The League of Non-aligned Worlds are being unreasonable and difficult

33. Members of the League of Non Aligned Worlds are easily manipulated into taking a course of action

34. Londo is drunk

35. Somebody makes a joke about Spoo

36. Vir fails to dissuade Londo from a course of action

37. Mr Morden smiles ominously

38. G’Kar tries to kill Londo

39. G’Kar saves Londo’s ass

40. G’Kar makes a moving speech

41. Someone asks Stephen a simple question and he gives them far more information than they bargained for

42. Someone tells us about their religious beliefs

43. Twice if they actually have a go at defining the nature of God

44. Zack doesn’t understand something

45. Zathras says “Nobody listens to Zathras”

46. Nobody listens to Zathras

47. Wayne Alexander guest stars

48. Somebody almost gets laid

49. Somebody manages to get laid

50. A seriously disturbed human veteran of the Minbari war causes trouble on the station (e.g. tries to blow it up, attempts to assassinate someone, turns up dressed as King Arthur)

51. A down-below villain attempts to do a Cockney accent

52. There is a huge punch-up in the Zocalo

53. The station is almost destroyed

54.  The set is largely comprised of empty cardboard boxes covered with plastic wrap

55. The set is largely comprised of curtains

56. Space jazz is playing in the background

57. The same extras walk around in the background more than once

58. There are monks in the background

59. There is a Pak’ma’ra in the background

60. There is an obvious info dump that makes you cringe a little

That’s what we’ve come up with so far, but feel free to add more to the list.

This week’s culture round-up

From Bad Reputation, Inspirational Fictional Feminists: She-Ra. I was obsessed with She-Ra when I was a kid and I don’t think my mother has ever recovered from taking me to see the feature length version in the cinema. She had a middle-ear infection at the time and every time She-Ra and He-Man did their transformation thing, the noise made her feel like she was going to pass out, at least she said it was the middle-ear infection.

From Tor.com, a post about another childhood favourite, E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers

From Sociological Images, the trope of the mystical pregnancy in science fiction  .  I notice this trope a lot and it’s usually annoying.

For Books’ Sake celebrates Emily Bronte’s birthday 

One from Andy for the Babylon 5 fans among you, Jeffrey Sinclair is cooler than you 

Women of SF: Private Elizabeth (Dodger) Durman

I like to think of Babylon 5’s  Dodger as one the best female science fiction TV characters that never was.  She appears in exactly two episodes of Babylon 5 and in the second one she’s dead.  Private Elizabeth Durman, or ‘Dodger’, makes her entrance in the Season 2 episode, ‘GROPOS’, which stands for ‘Ground Pounders’ – B5 slang for the twenty-second century ground troops who briefly stop over at Babylon 5, much to the consternation of the more decorous Earth Force Officers who staff the station.

While at the station, Dodger takes a fancy to Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, but when he mistakes her as looking for a relationship and implicitly accuses her of complicating his life, Dodger takes him down with a great speech that demolishes his assumptions about what she wanted from him.  They patch it up before the end of the episode, but Dodger is sadly killed in action along with most of the other Ground Pounders.  The episode feels designed to make a point about the tragedy and waste of war, and is a lesson in the importance of seizing the day, because you never know how long you’re going to be around to enjoy it.  But Dodger is such a strong character that Neil Gaiman resurrects her in the episode he wrote for Season 5, ‘Day of Dead’, when an alien ritual gives some of the characters the chance to talk with dead people from their past.  Garibaldi’s encounter is with Dodger, who remains just as awesome post-mortem.

Despite her character’s short life-span, I think Dodger deserves recognition for her role in the development of female characters in science fiction TV.  She’s not unlike Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck, only without the neuroses and self-loathing.  There’s nothing apologetic or self-pitying about Dodger: she’s totally herself, at ease with her sexuality, has a great sense of humour and is full of life, even after death.

“I didn’t come here expecting to set up housekeeping. I’m a Ground Pounder.  I’m cleaning latrines one day, the next I might be up to my hips in blood hoping that I don’t hear the round that takes me out. You got it? In between I like to see what I can get to remind myself that I’m alive.  Right, it’s not romance, but it’s all I got time for.  I’m so sorry it’s not enough for you”.

Narrative Kinks

A little while ago on lj ruuger wrote about her die hard narrative kinks, causing me to think about the narrative ‘kinks’ that keep me coming back for more.  I don’t have quite as many as ruuger, but there are a some that do it for me every time.

1. Unrequited Love

I am a TOTAL sucker for narratives that feature characters being tortured by unrequited love.  Considering that pretty much all of my love was unrequited until I hit 29 you’d think I’d be rather averse to this sort of story, but not a bit of it.  In Babylon 5 we have Lennier being slowly twisted by his love for Delenn plus Marcus sacrificing himself for Ivanova (no wonder I’m addicted to that show).  In Star Trek Deep: Space 9 poor Odo the shape shifter is obsessed with the oblivious Major Kira.  I’m also inclined to include McCoy and Spock from the original series of Star Trek here – I think it’s the way McCoy persistently attempts to get Spock’s attention only to be rebuffed by “logic”, much to his neverending chagrin.

Favourite unrequited love story

Spike and Buffy of course (yes, I know it’s wrong).

2. Unresolved Sexual Tension between women

Not surprising really! I think this kink is a hold over from my sexually repressed adolesence during which I preferred same-sex tension unresolved because that meant I didn’t have to face up to the implications of resolving it.  I love the relationships between Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine in Voyager, Buffy and Faith,  and Ivanova and Talia in Babylon 5.

Favourite unresolved tension

Xena and Gabrielle, which they managed to string out forever. How much time did these ladies spend in the bath?

3. Love/hate relationships

Can’t get enough of that love/hate dynamic.  The passionate loathing between Ambassadors Londo and G’Kar in Babylon 5 is one of the finest things in the series.  The only time I have any interest in Angel in Buffy is when he interacts with Spike.   I’m also very fond of the love/hate vibe between Odo and Ferengi bartender Quark in DS9.  We could include Buffy/Faith and McCoy/Spock here as well.

Favourite love/hate pairing 

Londo and G’Kar.  They hate each other’s guts but we also know that theirs is a very deep relationship, deeper than they realise until Season 5.

4. The non-human character who shows us what it means to be human 

Star Trek comes into its own here: Spock in the original Star Trek, Data in TNG, Odo in DS9, the holographic doctor, Tuvok and Seven of Nine in Voyager, Q whenever he appears.  Then there’s the intelligent Sharon/Athena in Battlestar Galactica, the wonderful Anya in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Teal’c in Stargate: SG1.  I’m also rather fond of the Terminator robot in Terminator 2.

Favourite non human who shows us how to be human

This was a particularly hard choice, but in the end I felt I had to go with Mr Spock because the guy’s been showing us what it means to be human since 1966, which is an awful lot of standing around looking bemused and saying that things “aren’t logical”.  I think Anya from Buffy and the holographic doctor from Voyager are tied in a close second place though.

5. Redemption

My Christian upbringing is probably showing here, but I am the kind of person who reads A Christmas Carol and watchesIt’s a Wonderful Life every year, so enamoured am I of redemptive storylines.  By ‘redemptive’, I mean stories in which a character opens up to the possibility of change, renewel and growth. The Shawshank Redemption is one of my very favourite films and I think I’m especially taken with stories in which the redemption comes through friendship.  In Season 7Buffy Andrew is redeemed through his desire for friendship with the Scoobies and manages to be affecting and hilarious. Spike is finally redeemed through his friendship with Buffy,  Seven of Nine by Captain Janeway’s faith in her, and Londo and G’Kar through their eventual acceptance of each other’s friendship in Babylon 5.

Favourite redemption 

Another very hard one and I think this time we have a tie!

I want to give it to Anya from Buffy becaue I love her and she gets redeemed twice. I will never ever forgive Joss Whedon for the way he kills her off just as she’s finally coming into her own.

But I have to put a word in for Londo and G’Kar again.  I think I love this storyline so much because it’s very dark and makes the point that sometimes the only way to redemption is through death.

6. Very Scary and Almost Insurmountable Threats! 

I like my threats seriously scary and almost indestructable because I like to see my heroes overcoming massive odds.  There are the Shadows in Babylon 5.  The Borg in Star Trek.  Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.  Caleb is possibly the scariest villain in Buffy.  The Reavers in Firefly are almost too scary for me, but I think they give the show its edge.

Favourite threat 

“We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”

Women of SF: Lyta Alexander

No 57 in Godard’s list of 100 women in science fiction

Lyta Alexander enters the TV series Babylon 5 in the original pilot episode as a medium strength (P5) commercial telepath.  She starts as she means to go on with a dramatic storyline in which she gets caught up in the attempted assassination of the Vorlon Ambassador Kosh.   We don’t see Lyta again until late in Season Two when she returns to reveal the identity of a sleeper agent on the station.  She then disappears again until Season 3 when she reappears in the company of the mysterious and powerful Vorlons.

Lyta has one of the most compelling stories in Babylon 5.  She begins as a relatively ordinary telepath.   Like most other telepaths on Babylon 5 she was raised by the sinister Psi-Corps which all telepaths are forced to join.  She’s a nice person, honest, good-hearted and always willing to help people out.   After her close encounter with Kosh, she begins to question the Psi-Corps and goes on the run.  She manages to make it into Vorlon space (something no one else achieves in the show) and ends up working for the Vorlons.  As Season 3 progresses it becomes apparent that Lyta is no longer a P5 telepath, but the extent of the alterations to her abilities are unclear. She eventually turns against her masters and helps to oust them from the station.  She goes on to take a major role in defeating the forces of the corrupt President Clark during Earth’s civil war in Season 4.  In Season 5 she gets involved with the telepath underground and falls in love with a resistance leader only to lose him tragically.  By the end of Season 5, Lyta is royally pissed off with pretty much everyone, which is a problem, since it turns out that she’s probably the most powerful telepath in existence.

I felt a little conflicted about including Lyta in this list because while I do love her character and think Patricia Tallman puts in one of the best performances in Babylon 5, Lyta’s story is based on a narrative convention that I particularly hate, that of the powerful woman who can’t handle her own power and ends up mad/evil/dead (usually all three).  It is a convention which reiterates the idea that women simply can’t handle power.   But thinking about it, I’ve decided that Lyta deserves a place, partly because her complex story subtly undermines this convention.  Her descent into destructive behaviour is not caused by her power so much as by the terrible treatment she receives at the hands of just about everyone.  Lyta is persistently used, abused and dumped on by other characters and her final refusal to take any more crap is actually big relief.   Also, she survives at the end and although I haven’t read any of the post-TV series fiction I’ve heard that she goes on to achieve her aim of bringing down the Psi-Corps and freeing her people.

Quote: “I’ve done a lot for this place. Just once, I think a little gratitude would be in order, don’t you?”

Women of SF: Ambassador Delenn, Babylon 5

No 34 in Godard’s list.

Ambassador Delenn travels a difficult path over the course of Babylon 5.  She begins the show as a powerful and mysterious member of the Minbari government.  Her desire to promote understanding between humans and Minbari leads her to undergo a dramatic change and become a minbari/human hybrid. (Don’t ask how. There was a triangle thing and a cocoon involved and that’s as much as I can tell you).  Finding herself an object of suspicion to both sides, ejected from the ruling council of the Minbari and faced with the oncoming Shadow war, Delenn has to work to rebuild her life and regain her sense of wholeness.   What’s interesting about Delenn is that her character is based on tension, particularly between her moral and spiritual goals and her more impulsive, violent tendencies.   She is extremely religious (she belongs to a religious caste) brave, compassionate and puts great value on life.  But, like most of the Minbari, she has an edge and, when challenged, can be very ruthless.  As a consequence of her violent side, she has to deal with her guilt over her role in the start of the brutal Earth v. Minbari war which ended 10 years before the show’s start date.  She can also be secretive, but gradually opens up and reveals a more playful side in her romance with the station’s Captain, John Sheridan.  Delenn and Sheridan marry at the end of Season 4 and their relationship is refreshing in its equality.  The show represents them as two people for whom work is crucial and who give each other space to do what they need to do.  Croatian actress, Mira Furlan, plays the role with absolute conviction throughout the series and gives us one of the more intriguing women in science fiction television.

Classic quote:

“John!  It pleases me that you care for what I have become.  But never forget who I was, what I am, and what I can do.

Women in Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Susan Ivanova

Inspired by Godard’s Letterboxes, I have decided to start my own list of my favourite female characters in science fiction and fantasy.

Susan Ivanova is number 16 in Godard’s list.

Number 1: Commander Susan Ivanova, First Officer, Babylon 5

I’m starting with Ivanova because she stands for a lot of things I like to see in female characters: she’s complex, has integrity, principles, and is excellent at what she does, which in this case is being a professional soldier and pilot.  She’s not on gratuitous display as a sexual object, either for a male audience or the male characters in the show.  In fact, although she has a black sense of humour, she’s a pretty intense, serious character most of the time, but I think it’s refreshing to see a woman being represented as deadly serious.  She has her demons: everyone in her family is dead, she’s secretly a latent telepath in a world in which telepaths are forced to join the sinister Psi-Core, and she finds intimate relationships very difficult to maintain.

My main problem with the representation of Ivanova is related to sexuality (and I think this is going to be an ongoing theme in this series!).  Ivanova’s character was (apparently) written and was definitely played by the actress as presumptively bisexual, but this is never stated, or dealt with directly in the show.  Then, on the one occasion that she does open up enough to begin a close relationship with a female telepath called Talia Winters, the narrative immediately takes the classic lesbaphobic turn in which the first hint of female same-sex sexuality leads to at least one character going EVIL and/or dying .

Oh well.

However, Ivanova is still a great character and the show never recovers from Claudia Christian’s decision to leave at the end of Season 4.

Classic quote:

“I am the right hand of vengeance and the boot that is going to kick your sorry ass all the way back to Earth.  I am death incarnate and the last living thing that you are ever going to see.”