“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.

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