Babylon 5: "Day of the Dead" (March 11, 1998)

 

Parting is all we know of Heaven and all we need of Hell.

-- Emily Dickinson (quoted in "Day of the Dead")

I liked Babylon 5 the best in the first season. Sinclair was my favorite captain, the Russian commander Ivanova was still a strong character -- and so at her hottest -- and the Minbari, though the most tedious race, were balanced by the comedic rivalry between ambassadors G'kar (the Narn) and Molari (the Centauri). It was the least pedantic year for the series. That first year featured episodes like Soul Hunter and Deathwalker. The dark forces on the periphery were at their darkest, being only a hint, a shadow.

Then, of course, the Minbari ambassador Delenn goes into a cocoon and emerges half-human and even more annoying. Captain Sheridan (a frankly less intelligent and emasculated character) shows up to replace Sinclair, and the conflicts become increasingly spiritualized and political. It becomes less a fantasy than a reflection of the preoccupations of the times. What kept viewers like me watching were tantalizing glimpes of the Shadows, their erotically creepy vessels, the diabolical spread of the patriotic Nightwatch with its minion Bester (brilliantly, they chose Star Trek's Chekov for the role!), and the insidious Mr. Morden, shadow emissary.

It was enough for four seasons. But by the time the 'coming conflict' had become the 'war that was over', it was retro-episodes drawing on previous material and stand-alone episodes like Day of the Dead that held so much wonderful potential for Babylon 5. Sadly, the series ended its run instead. It should have continued, and could have, with more episodes like this one.

Written by Neil Gaiman, directed by Doug Lefler, Day of the Dead was the eighth episode of the fifth season of Babylon 5. Harlan Ellison even showed up in this one, as the voice of a machine. The plotline is this:

The Brakiri, a "night-dwelling" alien race onboard the Babylon 5 space station, are celebrating their Day of the Dead, something that happens one night every 200 years. "Tonight is the day of the dead. Tonight the dead return." In Mexico, on the eve that becomes the first of November, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), one is liable to see the dead walking about in black bodysuits printed with skeletons. It is a national as well as religious festival. Worldwide, on the eve that becomes the day of All Souls, Anglicans and Roman Catholics are remembering their dead, keeping vigil with them, and praying. It is a marking within time of the catholic community of Christians with their reposed.

Onboard Babylon 5, the Brakiri purchase a section of the station for a night. There, some of those crew members whose quarters fall within the Brakiri purchase are cut off as it "disappears" and exists, it seems, only on Brakir. Writer Gaiman is using the device of transposed place to convey the mystery of transformed time. By lifting the characters out of their original space and transporting them mystically to an ambiguous 'plane', he severs the link that unites being and location, drawing the viewer into the device. His characters are then at a crossroads of perception where dead and living can meet. In Day of the Dead, Gaiman has brought to a technological setting, used to planets and systems, warps and fields, the power of 'the forest', 'the open sea', the graveyard at night.

Even though 'stranded' for an evening, the crew members are not merely at the mercy of objectified spirits. Gaiman is too clever for that. The episode says that each person takes away something personal... subjective... from the experience. Synergy is suggested. As one ghost says, "I'm prophetic, not infallible." In other words, the dead can speak to the living, but it is the living who must decide what they have heard and what to do with it.

In the crew's quarters, the dead visit those who are haunted or broken-hearted by their deaths. The episode is a tale of shattered loves, of shattered hopes... very much a speciality of the writer. Not everyone hears what they want to hear. And not all the visitations are benign. Some are endured. "You raise a ghost," says one spirit, "you have to listen to what he says."

Captain Elizabeth Lochley is visited by teenage roommate Zoe -- the first time we learn of this person. Zoe's possible suicide had been so traumatic for Lochley that her password is "Zoe's dead".

Lennier is visited by the late Mr. Morden, the Shadows' human agent. He has some typically shadowy news for Lennier. "Delenn does not love you as you love her, and she never will." Those who watched Babylon 5 through all five seasons will be aware of how tragic are the implications of this, and how painful for Lennier. As Mr. Morden says, "No one should ever want to talk to the dead." This is not Morden's only prediction for Lennier.

Molari is visited by Adira Tyree (Argentine-Italian actress Fabiana Udenio), an exotic dancer and the one woman he ever really loved. She was poisoned by an emissary of the shadows (avid viewers will remember Adira from the episodes Born to the Purple and Interludes and Examinations). "I killed the man that killed you... but that didn't bring you back," says Molari. Adira is a Centauri Barbie with a poorly fitted Centauri head, but it's a nice part. Molari is, of course, slated for the job of Centauri emperor. This is his last brush with love. "I don't want to be emperor. I want to stay here with you."

Mr. Garibaldi finds geekthrob killed-in-action "Ground Pounder" marine and lover Dodger (Marie Marshall from the episode GROPOS) in his shower. She was Star Trek: The Next Generation's Kelsey in the episode Starship Mine."It's some guys' fantasy. A love hungry redhead who will disappear in the morning." She's got a point. It is rather frustrating to watch Garibaldi rebuff her repeated attempts to seduce him. Perhaps he's a little hesitant about the necrophilia.

Sheridan gets a typically cryptic message from Ambassador Kosh. Kosh always (even in death) has those zen koen tidbits of advice, like "The avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote." This episode doesn't disappoint. A few additional kosh-isms:

"The willows must scuttle carefully."
"Understanding is a three-edged sword."
"What is need compared to the path?"
And, of course, "We are all Kosh."

And, as with Kosh, the long night has passed, and "The dead stay dead," as Molari said. At least, until they choose to visit next. Don't be suprised if they pop up in your shower and say that Neil Gaiman has sent them. In the meantime, if you crave just a little more night... try Neil's new CD, two plays for voices.

[Asher Black]

Warner has Babylon 5: The Complete First Season as well as the pilot out on DVD. There's a petition for releasing further seasons on DVD. Until then, the VHS tape can be purchased at Video Universe. Dreamhaven Publishing has the Day of the Dead script in paperback. The script benefits the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (Neil is a board member) and can be purchased from their site. Want to be as up on Babylon 5 lore as I seem to be? Refer to the Babylon 5 Encylopedia. Lastly, Planet of the Geeks has downloadable "Ask Kosh" software. Don't be surprised if his answers are vague. Until we get a chance to converse with Neil, we'll just have to make do with the Vorlon.