The Minbari Civil War – Babylon 5 Season 4

As one of the most prominent characters, Delenn’s arc over the course of the series has gone hand-in-hand with first Jeffrey Sinclair and then John Sheridan. It can be argued that Delenn is the co-lead, since her actions and decisions have long-lasting reverberations. One decision, made back in Season 3’s episode “Severed Dreams”, is finally addressed in this series of three episodes that form the Minbari Civil War arc.

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

Note: Since this essay focuses primarily on the Minbari Civil War arc in these episodes, I’m going to be ignoring the Babylon 5-centric storylines, which will be reviewed in a future essay.

In the third season episode “Severed Dreams”, Delenn broke the Grey Council, the governing body of the Minbari Federation. In the process, she shattered a thousand years of peace between the three Castes of Minbari culture: Worker, Warrior, and Religious. While there had always been tension between the various castes, it never boiled over into outright hostilities. The end of the Shadow War and the absence of the Grey Council now gives the Warrior Caste the means of exerting control over Minbari society.

The first domino to fall is found in the episode “Lines of Communication”. Delenn is contacted by a member of the Religious Caste named Forell concerning attacks on species other than Minbari that live within the boundaries of Minbari space and have been harassed by raiders. We learn early on that the aliens committing these attacks are highly organized and possess a high level of technology, judging by the semi-organic nature of their ships. Delenn leaves with Forell to investigate these attacks but finds herself in a deadly trap.

We soon learn from Forell that the Warrior Caste has been sacking cities, making war against their own kind and expelling Religious Caste members from conquered territory. While it is true that “Minbari do not kill Minbari”, Forell outlines that the Warrior Caste are skirting this sacrosanct law by forcing the Religious Caste to trek on foot from one large city to another across a frozen tundra. When it is the elements or starvation that kill, the Warrior Caste can self-righteously say that they did not directly “kill” those Minbari.

It turns out that Forell is the one who has led Delenn and Lennier into a trap, an opportunity to meet the aliens who have been preying on the other species living within Minbari space. We learn the name of this invasive species: the Drakh. It is Lennier that deduces the Drakh’s true nature: they were the servants of the Shadows who escaped the destruction of Z’ha’dum earlier in Season 4. Now without their masters’ guidance, the Drakh seek to set themselves up as the next great power in the galaxy. Unfortunately for Forell, he did not have time to tell the Drakh who they would be meeting. When the Drakh emissary learns that Delenn is present, the Drakh ships attack once the emissary has left the White Star, leading to a devastating attack and the death of Forell.

But, if you’ve been paying attention to this series up to this point, Delenn does not take such affronts without fighting back. Directing the remaining White Stars to regroup, Delenn leads them in a reprisal attack, which decimates the Drakh and destroys their mothership. The situation has left a mark on Delenn, though. Now faced with the evidence that her planet and people are in disarray, she must do something. She decides to put right what she has done, revealing yet again that at her core, Delenn is someone who understands the burdens of leadership and takes on those burdens with clarity and a functioning moral compass.

This leads to the next episode in this arc (but not the immediate sequel episode in the series order) “Rumors, Bargains, and Lies”. After leaving Babylon 5 behind, Delenn travels to Minbari space and meets with an old adversary of hers, the former Grey Council member Neroon (played by the returning John Vickery). As a high-ranking member of the Warrior Caste, there is every reason to belief that Neroon will be in opposition to Delenn. But that is not the case here.

Despite being cast in an antagonistic role on more than one occasion, I’ve come to appreciate Neroon with each subsequent rewatch of the series. There is a tense standoff at the beginning, with members of the two warring Castes staring each other down. It says something about the conviction that Delenn carries within her that when she steps up to the line of Warrior Caste Minbari, they falter for just a moment.

Once the pair of them are in a private space, Neroon and Delenn have a frank and open conversation. In spite of their past differences, Delenn holds Neroon in high esteem (after a fashion, to borrow a line from this exchange). Neroon is appalled by the war on Minbar, seeing it as a futile conflict that will only cause great suffering. It’s a telling moment when he says that he and Delenn would be two people against a world gone mad. Delenn echoed the same sentiment back in the third season episode “Ceremonies of Light and Dark” when referencing the Earth-Minbari War. When the Minbari commit to an action, there are no half measures.

The potential alliance between Delenn and Neroon is tested by both of their respective castes. In the case of Neroon, one of his Warrior Caste acolytes attempts to kill him with a Minbari fighting pike, an attack that Neroon is able to overcome but at the cost of being injured. The Religious Caste members, however, opt for martyrdom, believing that Delenn will acquiesce to the Warrior Caste and surrender. They decide to poison the atmosphere of the ship, killing themselves and the Warrior Caste. Only after they learn that Delenn has no intentions of surrendering do the Religious Caste Minbari rush to stop their suicidal act. Luckily, Lennier was able to stop the plot from unfolding but at severe cost to his physical well-being.

The ending of the episode throws everything on its head, though, as it appears Neroon sneaks out and contacts his superiors, indicating the Religious Caste does not have the stomach to fight a war. Like many things in this series, not all is as it seems.

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The finale of the Minbari Civil War arc, “Moments of Transition”, is a heart-wrenching episode to witness. Neroon returns to his superior, Shakiri, and reports that Delenn will seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Neroon calls out the destructive nature of the civil war, which Shakiri casts aside with flippancy. It’s clear from the beginning that Shakiri is only interested in power for himself. He is the classic example of a general that cares only for himself, not the people under his command. As Shakiri puts it, death ‘is only a release from our obligations” and not something to be feared.

Delenn, on the other hand, is in the Minbari capital city, which we see is in flames. She is tending to the wounded as best as she can, with Lennier by her side as always. Delenn asks Lennier to deliver a message to the Warrior Caste: the Religious Caste surrenders and will allow the Warrior Caste to select the time and place of the surrender. It’s apparent that this was not an easy decision on Delenn’s part but it is the wisest course of action against a foe that literally spends their entire lives studying warfare.

The plot becomes apparent when we see Neroon and Shakiri again discussing the Religious Caste’s surrender. Neroon suggests the Temple of Varenni, a prominent place from Minbar’s long history. In the days before Valen, the Temple of Varenni was where disputes between the castes were decided. It is also equipped to broadcast the meeting to the entirety of the planet, making it an ideal place for a surrender. We also see how far Shakiri has fallen down the moral abyss when he states that Delenn will need to be removed at some point in the future.

The ending of the Minbari Civil War is where the heartbreak begins. Shakiri grandstands for the crowd, claiming the supremacy of the Warrior Caste and their goal to create a Warrior’s Council to replace the defunct Grey Council. Delenn objects strongly, stating that her caste’s surrender was only a way to end the conflict, not to abandon their right to form a new government. When Shakiri balks at this and asks how they will settle this dispute, the center of the Temple opens in a brilliant light.

The Starfire Wheel, as this phenomenon is called, was the means the ancients used to settle disputes between the castes before the arrival of Valen. The leaders of the two warring castes would step into the Starfire Wheel, since it was never the leaders who directly put themselves in harms’ way for their caste. The leader who refused to give their life for their caste would cede leadership to the caste who’s leader stayed within the Wheel and sacrificed their life.

Naturally, Shakiri refuses to step into the energy beam, valuing his own existence above serving his people. It’s in this moment that Neroon steps up, using Shakiri’s own words to shame his superior to enter the Starfire Wheel. If it wasn’t clear before now, it’s crystal clear at this point that this was the plan Neroon and Delenn came up with during their meeting on the Minbari cruiser. Reluctantly, Shakiri enters the Starfire Wheel and almost immediately doubles over in pain as the energy beam begins harming him. Contrasting him is Delenn, who despite the agonizing pain she must be experiencing, is standing tall.

As it should be no surprise, Shakiri will not sacrifice himself for his caste, leaving Delenn as the victor. But instead of stepping out of the beam as she said she would to Neroon, she stays in, ready to give her life to set an example for her people to follow. With a bellowing cry of defiance, Neroon enters the Starfire Wheel. Wracked with pain from the beam’s energy, Neroon lifts Delenn up and hands her off to Lennier, saving her life. With his last words, Neroon says that while he was born a member of the Warrior Caste, the calling of his heart is Religious, allowing Delenn’s caste to be declared the victors in this conflict. An instant later, Neroon’s life is snuffed out by the Starfire Wheel.

The death of Neroon hits me every time I watch this episode. From his first appearance, it was apparent that there were more layers to this character than meets the eye. Even when he is a direct antagonist, such as when he is elevated to the Grey Council or when he seeks to kill Delenn to prevent her from assuming the role of Entil’Zha, he is not driven by malice but by righteousness (misguided righteousness but that’s a character flaw for you). In his final moments, Neroon recognizes that in his heart, he was born into the wrong caste and that he has more in common with Delenn than he would have ever cared to admit. It is a tragic, hero’s death, one that Neroon would have found most fitting.

Even though she is still suffering from injuries from her prolonged exposure in the Starfire Wheel, Delenn moves forward with reforming the Grey Council. But she adds an interesting twist to the reformed council. Instead of seeking a balance between the three castes, she opts instead to cede power to the Worker Caste, calling five members of that Caste to form the core of the Council. Only two members of the Religious Caste and Warrior Caste respectively are called to fill out the remaining four spots on the council. As Delenn states, religion and war should be in service to the people. The Worker Caste will have the chance to build the future, which is what they are best at. The Minbari Civil War arc is a small piece of Babylon 5’s fourth season but it is one of the most important from a storytelling perspective. First, it shows Straczynski’s commitment to consequences, both for Delenn and for her people. The dissolution of the Grey Council may have been a fist-pumping moment in the third season but it fractured Minbari society in the process. Seeing Straczynski follow through on that in such a dramatic way was not only necessary but also deftly handled. Second, it allowed for the close of Neroon’s story arc, a character who as I illustrated above was due for a moment like this. By casting Delenn and a former adversary as allies, it forces the audience to re-examine their assumptions about Neroon as a character and his caste as adversaries. Lastly, it sets the stage for the future of the Minbari, something that would not be seen on the show but would have long-lasting effects on the species moving forward.

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