Babylon 5

Series Rewatch – Babylon 5: A Distant Star – The Shadows are Near

Written by J. Michael Straczynski, Larry DiTillio, and D.C. Fontana
Directed by Jim Johnston

This is an episode that has it all. There is great character development, good action sequences with special effects, some humor, as well as a good foreshadowing of the story to come.

Captain Maynard (Russ Tamblyn) of the Cortez who is a friend of Captain Sheridan’s (Bruce Boxleitner) is arriving at Babylon 5 to resupply. The Cortez is an Explorer-Class ship and has been out on the rim for some time. It’s almost as large as the Station itself.

Captain John Sheridan: I’ll tell you one thing. If the primates that we came from had known that someday politicians would come out of the gene pool, they’d have stayed up in the trees and written evolution off as a bad idea! Hell, I always thought the opposable thumb was… overrated!

As Maynard and Sheridan are chatting, Maynard muses about how Sheridan can be happy at Babylon 5 when he was destined to Captain an Explorer-Class ship one day himself. When Sheridan next meets with Mr. Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), he seems bothered by the petty concerns of the Station. When Commander Ivanova (Claudia Christian) meets with him, she states he has seemed different since the Cortez was there. Sheridan admits that he feels more at home running a ship than the minutiae of running Babylon 5. He says he feels “beached” and like he’s being turned into a bureaucrat and a politician

Later that evening, Maynard tells of encountering something in Sector 857 out on the Rim. He was in a scout ship when he saw something very large blocking the stars that should have been there.

While the Cortez is traveling through hyperspace, they lose some of their tracking and navigation systems. This means they can’t lock on to any of the jumpgates. Sheridan sends out a squadron of Starfuries to help them. He wants them to act as lifelines to try to rescue the Cortez.

The Cortez receives the message from Babylon 5 that help is on the way. Unfortunately, there are other ships lurking in hyperspace that hear it as well. As the Squadron is moving into position for the lifeline to get them back to Babylon 5, they are attacked. One of the fighters is destroyed. Warren Keffer (Robert Rusler) tells them to follow the course he laid out and to not worry about him. The Cortez returns to Babylon 5 and reports two of the squadron as lost.

Delenn: The universe puts us into places where we can learn. They are never easy places, but they are right. Wherever we are is the right place and the right time. The pain that sometimes comes is part of the process of constantly being born.

However, Keffer is still alive. He sees the ship that is in hyperspace and it leads him out of the jumpgate. The other Starfury that was destroyed was the squadron commander, so Ivanova promotes Keffer to be the new squadron leader.

Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova: Fine! All my life I’ve fought against imperialism; now *I’m* the expanding Russian frontier!
Dr. Stephen Franklin: Yes, but with very nice borders.

Meanwhile, Dr. Franklin (Richard Biggs) is going over his latest health concerns with Mr. Garibaldi as a follow-up to his being shot. He tells him he needs less salt in his diet, among other things. When Sheridan visits him, Franklin says he needs to lose 10 pounds. Ivanova needs to eat a more balanced diet to get more nutrients. The three eat together later on, and none of them are happy with what’s before them. They try to switch, but Dr. Franklin catches them. When Dr. Franklin is examining Delenn, she, unfortunately, lets on that Garibaldi is trying to sneak food on board the Station.

Minbari Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan) has a visitor from Minbar, Teronn (Sandey Grinn), who brings notice that there are those among the Minbari on Babylon 5 who are worried about her and think she may not really be a Minbari anymore. He threatens that if she does not give them what they need, they will send a representative to make a request to the Grey Council.

Captain John Sheridan: I wish I had your faith in the universe. I just don’t see it sometimes.
Delenn: Then I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of all time. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. And as we have both learned, sometimes the universe requires a change of perspective.

I’ll get my one complaint out of the way right away. I thought Russ Tamblyn was out of his league in this role. He’s a guest star, but he seems both bombastic and wooden. The bombastic would fit in fine with his character, but the addition of the woodenness, especially in times of crisis, takes away from the character. I have a feeling he was struggling with acting with a green screen. He seems to do well when he is walking through the Station with Sheridan and talking. It’s when he is on the bridge of the Cortez that he seems to become more wooden. Could that be how the director was calling for the character to be portrayed? I’m not convinced since Jim Johnston has directed many episodes of the series and has gotten good performances from most of the actors.

However, this crisis on the Cortez helps the audience learn about the jumpgate technology. The Cortez has been out on the known edge of space, or “The Rim” helping to build jumpgates. Ships that enter hyperspace via a jumpgate must have a lock on the signals from the jumpgate to navigate through hyperspace. If they lose the lock, they are as lost as ocean vessels in a thick fog with no radar. This is what happens to the Cortez.

Having Keffer see the Shadow vessels in hyperspace makes him the first from Babylon 5 to confirm a sighting of these ships. Although they are still unknown as to who they are or what their intentions are, it’s a good bit of menacing that they are in hyperspace close to Babylon 5. I think Keffer was originally supposed to be the role that Marcus Cole later evolved into. The character of Keffer was new this season, and to be honest, he doesn’t make that much of an impression on the series.

There was a good bit of humor surrounding Dr. Franklin’s “health plan” for the senior officers and their resistance to it. It also showed a camaraderie between the officers that really needed a few episodes to grow with Sheridan being the new Commander this season. The three seem to be comfortable with each other, which was important for Garibaldi and Sheridan, who had to grow into a relationship of trust.

The restored special effects here are great. This is one of those episodes I look forward to seeing on Blu-ray when the series boxed set is released later this year. My old DVD sets were quite blurry with the effect, making hyperspace impossible to discern much of anything. Now I can see the details of the Shadow vessels and their encounter with the Starfuries, while the lighting effects on the ships don’t blur out everything near them.

The most development in this episode is Sheridan, once again. We get to see him question his position here, as well as grow into being more of a diplomat. Where he doubts his ability and desire to command Babylon 5, with the Shadows looming so close it is good to have someone there with command military experience. He also bonds with Delenn, foreshadowing a change in their relationship as well. I also can’t say enough positive about the writing. There’s so much here that seems inconsequential on first viewing, but is important once viewing it multiple times and realizing what is upcoming. There are many lines that have such deep meaning, not just in the Babylon 5 universe, but for ours as well. I’ve often thought that J. Michael Straczynski, an atheist, gets to the heart of matters of faith better than many spiritual leaders of today.

All in all, A Distant Star is a solid piece of writing and well-executed. I’m amazed all the time how well a science-fiction series of the early 1990s holds up today.

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