Alright ladies and gentlemen, buckle in. This is going to be a long ride.
For many people, “Signs and Portents” is the start of the major story arc in Babylon 5. It’s my hope that, over the course of this series so far, I’ve shown that some story elements go all the way back to the first episode (“Midnight on the Firing Line”). This is definitely a game changer, however, with so much story packed into such a small episode that there is plenty to unpack here. There’s a reason that this is the episode that lends its name to the season as a whole.
As a series, Babylon 5 is guided by a series of questions. It is not only the question that is important, but the order in which you answer those questions. The guiding question in this episode is the nefarious, “What do you want?” The question, posited by the mysterious Mr. Morden (Ed Wasser), represents a selfish nature. As we’ll learn later on, the counter to this question is “Who are you?” The idea being, if you know who you are first, then it makes sense to know what you want. If you simply answer the one question without the other, then how do you know what you truly want? You just know what you want right now, which is exactly what Mr. Morden is looking for: what each of the ambassadors want at this moment and, more importantly, how Morden and the Shadows can manipulate that desire to create a powerful partnership.
The simmering feud between the Narn and Centauri, brought back to a boil in the previous episode (“By Any Means Necessary”) is well exploited here, first, for comedic effect, with the bickering of Londo and G’Kar as they wait for a transport tube, and then later in the answers of both of the ambassadors. The difference between the two ambassadors is instantly obvious: G’Kar wants revenge. His people were abused by the Centauri and the Narn cry out for blood in retaliation. Once that desire for blood has been fed, however, G’Kar’s vengeance loses its momentum. Londo, on the other hand, is a patriot. He wants to see his people return to their proper place among the stars: a return to power for the Centauri race. Such a desire is not easily sated, because even if the Centauri regain their power, the desire to hold on to that status continues on. Morden finds his unsuspecting pawn in that desire. The message is simple: patriotism outranks revenge.
What I find interesting in the answers of Londo and G’Kar is how those answers might have changed (or might not have) had they asked themselves the other question first: Who are you? G’Kar, who is more spiritual at heart, might have come up with a completely different answer than his quest for revenge – a desire heated by his recent interactions with Londo. Londo, the patriot, probably would have come up with the exact same answer. Londo is so focused on the loss of status his people have suffered that he sees himself as something less than he should be. When the Eye is thought to be lost, Londo sounds like he’s throwing in the towel: his bid for power has failed, and he sees no more purpose in his place at Babylon 5. This may also be why Morden chooses Londo – because regardless of the order of the questions, Londo’s passionate patriotism wouldn’t have changed his answers.
Of course, Morden’s interactions aren’t limited to just the Narn and Centauri ambassadors. Morden also poses the question to Delenn, who gets the same glowing triangle on her forehead that her superior had when checking on Sinclair’s memory in “And the Sky Full of Stars.” We know that triangle links Delenn to the gray council, but why it detects the presence of the nefarious Shadows is a question I still don’t remember. Her perception of Morden as she turns around – as the light upon him fades until he himself is a shadow in silhouette – is one of my favorite moments of the episode. We know nothing about Morden, his tragic past, his influential future, but with one shot we know he is cast in shadow – a visual representation of the ramifications to come.
Morden’s interactions with Kosh are so wonderfully underplayed that a casual viewer could miss one of the most important parts of the episode. Morden avoids Kosh in the hallways once, but the second time the Vorlon Ambassador sees him, warning him to leave here. “They are not for you,” the Vorlon entones. The scene ends there, but observant viewers later hear Garabaldi mention Kosh in the damage report – the Vorlon’s encounter suit had been damaged and he requested tools to fix it. Morden may not look like much, but that one line, practically a throw-away line, establishes that there is a very physical threat coming from the man. As we’ll later learn, Morden never travels alone, and it’s certain his Shadow companions dealt with Kosh as they saw fit.
I’ve seen this episode quite a few times, but something never occurred to me until this viewing: Morden asks his question to the Centauri, Narn, and Minbari ambassadors. For obvious reasons he avoids Kosh (or at least tries to), but he never brings his question to any of the human leadership. You would think, Morden himself being human, the humans might be the most susceptible to his question. Or maybe the Shadows already know how weak and corruptible the humans are. After all, they have their hands in the whole Clark storyline to come. Perhaps they feel they have enough of a hold on humans and are simply looking for other ambitions and weaknesses to exploit. Regardless, the absence of an interaction between Morden and Sinclair had never struck me before, but did this time around.
We learn a lot more about the Centauri people in this episode, from their handling of telepaths (or seers like Lady Ladira) to the ruthless machinations of their people. Lord Kiro’s plan, bankrolling the raiders and staging his own kidnapping so he can hold onto the ancient artifact and symbol of Centauri power is a very Centauri move – the expectation rather than the exception when it comes to Centauri dealings. You would think there would be significantly less trust between any two Centauri, particularly people who are either in power or desire power, such as Kiro and Londo, and yet the two attempt to work together well. That winds up working well for Londo, who remains true to his people, and not so well for Kiro, who attempts to exploit the situation for his own gain.
While we’re talking about the Centauri, we would be remiss if we didn’t hit on Lady Ladira’s vision of the end of the station. There are multiple parts to her vision, which followers of the show know will both come true and not come true. The sounds of the station being abandoned are a “what might be,” alluding to a Shadow invasion of Babylon 5 – a very real occurrence that is thankfully staved off at the appropriate time. The vision of the station being destroyed is very real. It’s a different angle and the honor guard of other ships aren’t visible from the angle we see the destruction taking place, but the final episode shows an Earthforce shuttle leaving the station as the defunct station is destroyed. The way we see it here is more exciting than the reality, particularly because we don’t have the full context, but it is a vision that eventually comes true.
Although it’s only a minor part of the episode, Sinclair’s storyline gets an interesting development as well as he brings Garibaldi into his confidence to get some help exploring his missing past. For reasons unknown, the security chief is able to get access to information Sinclair can’t, namely the list of candidates to run Babylon 5. We learn Sinclair wasn’t near the top of the list, but he was the candidate that the Minbari approved. This makes sense: the Minbari recognize that Sinclair possesses the soul of a Minbari and he is also someone they want to be able to keep an eye on. By having him put in charge of the station, they can have Delenn keep watch, as we’ve learned she’s been tasked with. I also wonder if the Minbari think someone with a Minbari soul might be more sympathetic to issues that might affect their race, giving them a leg up in the negotiations – such a thought is not really a Minbari process (more like a Centauri), but it’s still worth considering.
Whew. I told you this was a big one, and I’m certain I’ve missed a few things. Thankfully, we’ll have the opportunity to come back to them as the story arc develops.
On the heels of the previous episode, the bickering between Londo and G’Kar while waiting for the transport is just hilarious.
Ed Wasser sells all of Morden’s scenes, which is a hard task to do in an episode where the character is asking what is perceived as a ridiculous question to half the characters. While I don’t normally side with villains, Morden is the kind of villain you love to hate, and that starts right here.
The first appearance of the Shadows is a moment forever etched in any fan’s brain. That was the moment this show changed course. We may not have seen every race’s vehicle signatures yet, but damn we knew that was something unique, mysterious, and not to be messed with. Fade in… destroy… fade out.
Ivanova: Grab it, store it, shove it.
Morden: What do you want?
Londo: All right. Fine! You really want to know what I want? You really want to know the truth? I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy. I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again, and command the stars! I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power. I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment, afraid to– to look back, or to look forward. I want us to be what we used to be! I want… I want it all back, the way that it was! Does that answer your question?
A fantastic episode that really introduces one of the major players of the overarching story. You probably could jump straight to this episode and figure things out quickly, but missing it is a huge mistake.