SJ Review #408

Episode: 408 - The Illusion Of Truth
Stephen Furst (also plays Vir Cotto)
Jeff Griggs (Dan Randall)
Henry Darrow (Dr. Indiri)
Diana Morgan (Alison Higgins)

An ISN news crew arrive on Babylon 5 to make a report on the situation there. Whilst Sheridan and the other command crew try to find the best way to counter the inevitable censorship that President Clarke's propaganda machine will impose upon them, Garibaldi tries once more to piece together the recent developments in his life...

There is a general rule that can be applied to cinema or television - 'sequels are never as good as the original.' There are of course exceptions but, for the most part, this rule seems (unfortunately) to be valid. This week's episode was the unofficial sequel to season two's excellent "And Now For A Word," and consequently had a lot to live up to.

Things started out promisingly enough, with Sheridan and Ivanova worrying about friends and family back home on Earth - a subplot that has been badly ignored during the last half-season. This type of character-exploration did not develop beyond the teaser; more's the pity. After this initial subtle but engaging scene, we were forced to watch a scene which could quite possibly be included on the list of terrible B5 scenes, right underneath the monster scene from "Grey 17 Is Missing."

The scene in question is that in which the ISN crew is discovered, along with all their equipment. The beginning of the scene showed some extras standing about, trying to decide whether to have a proper fight or just have a frowning competition - the opted for something of a compromise, instead. The events became even more ludicrous when Zack took the liberty of shooting open the cargo. This move - pulling a gun on somebody who is not being at all threatening and then deliberately damaging their belongings - was ridiculous. This heavy-handed approach should have earned Zack an instant dismissal from the security team. If this is the attitude the security force takes, is there really much difference between their tactics and Clarke's? This scene displayed a distinct lack of thought on the part of the scriptwriter, Straczynski. It also signalled the beginning of the tone for the majority of the episode, which can be summed up with what should have been this episode's title:

"Babylon 5: The Failed Comedy"

B5 has always been good at subtle humour - small, quick quips made by the characters that always seem in-character, realistic and correctly timed with the surrounding events. What the show has never been very good at is outright jokes - such as the 'sex' scene in the second season episode "Acts Of Sacrifice." Unfortunately, "The Illusion Of Truth" was packed with humour of the latter kind.

Scene after scene demonstrated terrible dialogue that was not only out-of-character, but also plain absurd.

First up was Sheridan's comparison with the Shadow War and reporters: Would he really be making jokes about the Shadow War so soon after its finale? Next came the 'hilarious airlock joke' between Ivanova and Sheridan at the expense of the reporter - and us: It was just plain unrealistic. Then we had the photo of the Drazi religious statue of one of their gods: Why would the Drazi have gods that look nothing like Drazi? Even if they do have alien gods, surely they would not look so ridiculous. I believe the statue was just another attempt at a joke - and one that fails miserably.

All this failed humour ruined the humour that *did* actually work - such as Lennier head-butting the camera and Londo's complaint about his arm falling off. These two clips were very funny, in a typically B5-esque way, but were spoiled by the lame 'jokes' that surrounded them.

Whilst on the subject of the hovering cameras, it must be said that the effects were very good. It showed that the new effects people can do subtle, very realistic effects as well as big, over-the-top space battles.

This episode did not fail just on the humour side, either. The characters were continuously made to do stupid things which, ordinarily, they would not do. The interview with Sheridan and Delenn was full of massive pauses, giving the news team plenty of scope for re-editing. What made this even more unforgiveable was Sheridan's comment later on, when he stated that they had replied in such a way as to avoid mis-intepretation. Now, whilst Sheridan may not have realised just how bad the ISN situation was, or how much video can be manipulated, this scene just made him look very, very stupid - which he is not.

The episode suddenly changed tone half-way through, when the ISN broadcast began. The humour suddenly disappeared, being replaced with a fairly realistic news programme (all this did was emphasise how futile JMS' efforts at humour were earlier...).

Although the broadcast was interesting and convincingly portrayed, it was also full of missed opportunities, the main one being during the 'This Year in History' section. This scene should have included video clips of Yuri Gagarin, as well as the Luna Colony and the Psi Corps; instead we had to make do with lines of dull text.

The B5 report itself was very well structured. The way the footage was manipulated was very clever - not just on the part of ISN, but on the part of JMS, too. What a pity the first half of the episode hadn't been as intelligent.

Other than the above point, the only other bad points about the news broadcast were that the psychiatrist interviews were rather boring (although this probably made it more realistic, in fact!) and that we should have seen other 'experts' to really drive home the propaganda. Channel 4 also made a slight mistake in the scheduling of advert breaks. It is a pity they could not have moved the first advert break back to fill in the point in the ISN broadcast when there *should* have been adverts - instead we just got the logo appearing, which broke the illusion of a real news report.

As with the last episode, "The Illusion Of Truth" ended superbly. The utter silence, followed by a single beep as Sheridan switched off the broadcast was very moving, and conveyed his emotions just as well as if he had ranted a massive speech (which could have been a lot less interesting, as it happens).

This episode, then, was a great idea, with pretty good acting and effects, let down by a rubbish script. As with the ISN broadcast, the episode as a whole was a mass of missed opportunities. Let's hope the next episode returns to the quality that was present in the first four episodes of season four.

Rating: 5.5/10

Simon Jones, reviewer.

1997 Simon Jones.