July 31, 2012
Babble On #15: "Signs and Portents"
The raiders subplot that has been troubled the station since the season began reaches a crisis point. Sinclair confides in Garibaldi about his experience during the Battle of the Line. A mysterious smiling stranger arrives on the station, with only one question for each of the ambassadors: 'What do you want?'
I'm usually used to kicking Straczynski's writing like nobody's business, but that isn't something I can do here. "Signs and Portents" is an outstanding piece of writing. Over the previous 12 episodes there's been a surfeit of humorous, rather silly scenes. There's one in this episode featuring G'Kar and Londo arguing pointlessly while waiting for an elevator. In the context of this sort of writing, it doesn't seem out of place for a weird smiling guy to start visiting each ambassador in turn repeatedly asking 'What do you want?' until they kick him out of their quarters or otherwise dismiss him. It starts off vaguely ridiculous. Then, quite unexpectedly, it gets rather frightening.
It's done in a subtle way, because at no point does this character - we'll later learn his name is Morden - lose his cool, change his tone, or do anything other than politely and cheerfully ask people what they want. G'Kar dismisses him. Then Delenn is actively terrified of him, and a shining triangular symbol appears on her forehead which she struggles to hide - it last appeared during Sinclair's flashback in "And the Sky Full of Stars". Morden meets the Vorlon ambassador Kosh in a corridor and is told 'They are not for you.' before the scene abruptly cuts away. Later we learn Kosh required materials to repair his damaged encounter suit. It's the growing reactions to Morden that make him appear so threatening, because his demeanour - as I've noted - never changes at all.
In the end it is Londo Mollari who tells Morden what he needs to hear: a return to glory for the Centauri Republic, something that Morden's mysterious backers already begin to provide to Londo by the episode's conclusion. Whoever they are, they're not wasting their time.
And here's where I'm a bit torn because while I've generally disliked the superficial tone of Babylon 5's early episodes, without that tone being set up "Signs and Portents" wouldn't be one tenth as effective as it is. It's got the best title of an episode so far, because signs and portents are exactly what this episode provides. Lots of hints. Lots of questions. A prophecy of the station's impending destruction. And a shadow beginning to loom worringly over the narrative (pun intended).
Five good episodes out of 13: Babylon 5's first season now scores 38%.