There are a lot of changes that happen over the course of Babylon 5. Characters come and go – some are planned, others not so much so. It is the writer’s job to take these curveballs and make them fit the scheme of the series in such a way that the story still stands alone, despite departure, death, or network interference. I’ve already discussed how some of the departures affect the overall narrative, but none change things as much as the change of command at the beginning of season two: goodbye Commander Sinclair; hello Captain Sheridan.
I’m not going to dive into the behind the scenes side of things. For reasons which have been obscured and faded by the passage of time, Michael O’Hare was written off of the show (some say it was J. Michael Straczynski’s plan all along, some say it was to replace the duller actor with a breath of fresh air, others say JMS was forced into the decision) and Bruce Boxleitner was brought in. The truth is there are only a handful of people who know the real reason behind the change, and I’m not one of them. All I can talk about is my own reaction to the change, which was this:
I was furious.
You see, I liked Commander Sinclair. There are a lot of people who say he was a stick in the mud, who say O’Hare had a dry, boring acting style, who say the character never really meshed for them. Well, he had for me, and when “Points of Departure” first aired, I was livid about the arrival of this interloper… even if he was Tron, he had no right taking over this station from the man who was chosen by both Minbari and Earthforce.
Now, it didn’t take long for Sheridan to win me over, to the point that he went on to be one of my favorite characters of the series (sometimes tied with and sometimes right behind G’Kar), but at first I was resentful of his appearance. I’ll point out exactly when he won me over, and I think you’ll find – particularly after my ferver here – how short a time it took for me to warm to the character.
In retrospect, what Straczynski did with Sheridan is brilliant. It would have been far too easy to shove in another character like Sinclair and keep the storyline running. Heck, Lennier even tells us here that several Earthers were scanned after Sinclair, making it easy to maintain that character element. Instead we get a completely different character type. Where Sinclair was a war veteran, Sheridan is a war hero, and the difference couldn’t be any larger. Sinclair’s loyalty due to his missing time was questioned and his authority was constantly overthrown in season one by upstarts like Ari Ben Zayn who felt they were right for the job. Sheridan, on the other hand, gave Earth its single victory in the Earth-Minbari war. He is respected by his peers (and his higher rank doesn’t hurt either), while the Minbari aren’t quite happy to see the man who destroyed several of their ships in the war suddenly in command of the station that is supposed to help unify everyone.
No, Sheridan is a completely different character. He is still somewhat methodical and analytical, but he is much quicker to action. He is led by his passions in a way Sinclair wasn’t, and that combination of character traits makes for a fascinating leader. While I do miss Sinclair and wonder how the series would have played out if he had stayed, Sheridan is an excellent twist for the story.
From a storyline standpoint, Sheridan’s coming couldn’t be at a better time. Half of the main characters are indisposed, allowing for focused character interactions instead of having to toss Sheridan in among the wide ensemble. Garabaldi is out of commission (allowing a period of suspicion when he comes out of the coma), G’Kar is off station investigating a theory, and Delenn is still in her chrysalis. So what we get here is a lot of Sheridan and Ivanova – interactions made even stronger by creating a previous connection between the two. Sheridan isn’t a stranger as much as an old friend for Susan, and that helps the audience build a connection with him even faster.
The other new addition of the season doesn’t quite get that benefit. Robert Rustler has the misfortune to play the main credit character voted, “Most Likely to Be Forgotten,” space jockey Warren Keffer. Keffer gives the audience another viewpoint – that of one of the lower troops. The problem is most of the series follows the higher-ranking officers and ambassadors. Keffer is simply out of place, which will show throughout the season as he is underdeveloped, serving only one real purpose. It’s a shame, since Rustler is actually a fun actor to watch, but even in this episode he is hastily introduced and his presence at the end of the episode – joining the chief medical officer and second in command of the station for drinks – feels awkward and out of place.
The storyline of the episode really helps solidify who John Sheridan is to the Earthforce people and establishes a couple of key story elements. First of all, Minbari don’t hurt Minbari. Good to know. Strange that wasn’t introduced earlier. Secondly, the Minbari ended the Earth-Minbari war because they discovered their souls were being reborn in humans and didn’t want to hurt their greater soul. This actually echoes all the way back to “Soul Hunter” and finally explains what happened to Sinclair (it’s just a shame Jeff wasn’t here for the news himself). Finally, it establishes a near-Klingon dedication to honor for the Minbari warrior caste (which goes back to “Legacies”). Yes, I just made a Star Trek comparison for the series. Deal with it. Again, this is an important element of the world to consider in the future.
Watching Ivanova deal with the pressures of leadership in the opening sequence is hilarious. I can think of a few people I’d love to shout at that way.
Lennier’s devotion to Delenn really foreshadows his character’s future. He is completely in service to her, even responding to possible death with the statement that he has much to do.
The explanation of what happened at the Battle of the Line is a revelation we’ve all been waiting quite a while for. It doesn’t disappoint.
Watching Sheridan calculate his way through the situation with the Trigadi really explains a lot about the character. He is quick to action, but doesn’t stop thinking and adapting. He’s not the “full bore ahead” space cowboy many make him out to be as this scene shows.
Finally, call me a sucker, but I love Sheridan’s good luck speech. Both scenes that show his speech are really solid moments and tell us a lot about the character, particularly his devotion to giving the speech (which reveals a superstitious side) despite nobody being around.
Sheridan: The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. A self-contained world five miles long, located in neutral territory. A place of commerce and diplomacy for a quarter of a million humans and aliens. A shining beacon in space, all alone in the night. It was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind… the year the Great War came upon us all. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2259. The name of the place is Babylon 5.
Ivanova: I can only conclude that I’m paying off karma at a vastly accelerated rate.
Lennier: If you are going to kill me then do so. Otherwise I have considerable work to do.
Sheridan: When I was 21, I visited Tibet. I went to see the new Dalai Lama. Uh, you do that sort of thing when you’re 21 and the son of a diplomatic envoy. We had a simple dinner. Rice, raisins, carrots—steamed, not boiled—and green tea. When it was over, he looked at me and said, “Do you understand?” I said no, I didn’t. “Good beginning,” he said. “You’ll be even better when you begin to understand what you do not understand.” After reading some of your reports, I begin to understand what I don’t understand about Babylon 5. But I couldn’t wish for a more capable and skilled group of people to learn from. It was an early Earth president, Abraham Lincoln, who best described our situation. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion. We cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial though which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the last generation. We shall nobly save or meanly lose our last, best hope of Earth.”
It’s always a rough road to travel when replacing a primary character. Babylon 5 does it spectacularly. Heck, it’s a much stronger start for Sheridan than Sinclair got, having to muddle through both the pilot and the first episode before things got better. The series will have stronger starts to its seasons, but this is a good one for Sheridan.