After the last essay on Season 3 of Babylon 5, I decided to skip the intervening episodes between the Earth Alliance Civil War arc and the next big arc of Season Three, War Without End. The episodes in between I’ll be covering in another essay after this. As it stands, I’ll end up with two more essays covering Season Three, since there is just so much that occurs in this season.
As with the previous essays, if you haven’t yet watched War Without End parts I and II, there are spoilers ahead.
I mentioned this in my essays on Season One of Babylon 5 but I want to go over it a bit more. In the first season of the series, Michael O’Hare was hired to portray the Commander of the Babylon 5 Station, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. At the beginning of Season Two, it was announced that Sinclair was being reassigned to Minbar (the homeworld of Delenn’s people, the Minbari) to serve as Earth’s Ambassador, the first human allowed to live on their home planet. This allowed Bruce Boxleitner to come in as Captain John Sheridan and take over as the lead of the show.
The reason for this change has been covered by J. Michael Straczynski in a few interviews, most notably at Phoenix ComiCon 2013. Michael O’Hare began to experience delusional behavior about halfway through the first season of the show. Rather than halt production (which would likely have resulted in Babylon 5 being shuttered completely), O’Hare and Straczynski came to an agreement to get through the remainder of the first season. As Straczynski put it, O’Hare hung on by his fingernails to get through the remainder of the episodes. Both of them realized at the end of it that O’Hare was getting worse and would need treatment for his mental illness. Straczynski arranged to take care of O’Hare’s financial needs while he went through the necessary treatment. A year and a half later, after getting through treatment and getting on the proper medications, O’Hare was invited back to perform in a two-parter in the third season, to close off one of the more intriguing storylines that were left dangling in Season One: the fate of Babylon 4, first shown in the episode “Babylon Squared”.
“Babylon Squared” was one of the episodes in the first season that was predominantly setup rather than providing answers to the audience. “War Without End” provides answers to those questions and quite a few others. Part One begins with a scene on Minbar, in the training academy for the Rangers. As a quick video message from Sinclair mentioned in the second season to Garibaldi and Delenn, Sinclair was appointed to the position of En’til’zha, the leader of the Rangers. A Minbari acolyte arrives with a box, containing a letter addressed to Sinclair that has been waiting for almost a thousand years. Right off the bat, Straczynski establishing a new wrinkle to the story with this letter. It is then revealed that Delenn received a similar letter with the same handwriting. The contents of the letter aren’t revealed until much later in the story but it creates an intriguing mystery for the viewer to chew on.
As the first part of the story unfolds, a garbled transmission is picked up in Sector 14, the area where Babylon 4 disappeared from and has been the source of a temporal anomaly ever since. Garibaldi is sent to investigate, which conveniently removes him from the station before Sinclair arrives. This was done because Michael O’Hare and Jerry Doyle did not get along with each other (despite playing close friends throughout the first season). The writing for the first half of the episode is sharp, with Sinclair’s new attitude contrasting sharply with Sheridan’s more no-nonsense personality. Both of these characters are used to being in command, to being respected by their peers due to their rank and the authority that comes with it. There’s a sense of uneasiness at first but it is quickly replaced by a healthy respect. Michael O’Hare and Bruce Boxleitner worked well off each other, considering they hadn’t shared any screen time together. Claudia Christian and O’Hare rekindled their dynamic quickly, almost as if no time had passed from the last time they shared the stage together, which is also true for O’Hare and Mira Furlan. The dynamic between Delenn and Sinclair flows differently than during their interactions during the first season. At this point, there are no more secrets between them, only mutual respect and a growing sense of dread for what this next adventure holds.
The garbled communication first heard at the beginning of the episode is revealed to be a transmission from the future by Ivanova during the fall of Babylon 5 at the hands of the Shadows. Ivanova, bloody and injured is calling from CNC, begging anyone in the area to come to their rescue. Sheridan has died and Garibaldi is rigging the station’s fusion reactor to serve as a giant bomb. The CNC room is in shambles and we are shown an exterior view as a massive armada of Shadow Vessels and fighters descend on the station, intent on its destruction. Straczynski uses this to quickly establish the life and death stakes of this story, one that will have a terminal end for our characters if they don’t succeed.
The revelation that Sinclair, Delenn, Lennier, Ivanova, Marcus, and one other are responsible for the disappearance of Babylon 4 sets up the remainder of the first episode, which essentially boils down to a heist in the past. This episode also introduces the character of Zathras, played by the late Tim Choate, one of the caretakers of the Great Machine on Epsilon Three (the planet Babylon 5 orbits). The Great Machine is focusing all of its considerable power to increasing the time rift in Sector 14, which allows the crew of the White Star to travel back in time to steal Babylon 4. Before going through the rift, Zathras provides the crew with a time stabilizer, a device meant to anchor them and prevent them from becoming “unstuck in time”.
It’s an effective Checkov’s Gun, which comes into play as the episode ends. The White Star arrives and prevents the Shadows from using a fusion bomb to blow up Babylon 4, but the end result is Sheridan’s time stabilizer being damaged, causing him to disappear into the time stream.
When Sheridan awakens, he finds himself in the far future, on Centauri Prime, facing an old and embittered Emperor Londo Mollari. The final shot of the episode is Sheridan looking out from the Imperial Palace on a devastated Centauri Prime.
Straczynski’s skill as a writer is on point in the first episode of this two-parter. Straczynski is very much in his element as a storyteller by quickly establishing the stakes of the story and seeding new mysteries while answering questions that had consumed the fanbase up to that point. The letters from the past to Sinclair and Delenn, the apocalyptic message of Ivanova’s from the future, and the reveal that Sheridan and the others were responsible for the biggest mystery (or so the characters consider it within universe) set up the dominoes that will begin falling in the next episode. And the cliffhanger ending gives us a glimpse of a possible future that the audience has been teased with, specifically that Londo will become Emperor of the Centauri Republic but that his rule will not be without dire circumstances. I remember watching this episode the first time and being blown away by the story. Watching it back a few times and I marvel that Straczynski was able to get to this point in his story and still be able to deliver on the promises that were made earlier in the show’s run. I’ll be following up on the second part of War Without End in my next essay.
One thought on ““War Without End (Part One) – Season Three of “Babylon 5””
War Without End is one of my favourite storylines from Babylon 5’s excellent third season. I really liked how this linked into Babylon Squared from season one as well – another favourite episode of mine. Straczynski’s superb writing totally blows me away, I love how he juggles so many plot threads and characters with almost consummate ease, and blends everything seamlessly into the overall narrative of Babylon 5 itself.