Thursday, January 15, 2009

B5 S4 Ep18: Intersections In Real Time

Honestly, this opening shot is the perfect, photographic representation of everything that is stripped down and naked in this episode.
Sheridan lays in a confined room in less than perfect physical health to put it mildly. An interrogator visits him. An electric zapper dubbed a pain giver shackles him. They were designed for use on the Narn. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, they were used by an assassin on G’Kar way back in Season One, Episode 5, The Parliament Of Dreams. The interrogator has arrived to force Sheridan into compliance with Earth’s requirement for cooperation. He is placed in a chair to meet those needs.

We sit in our own armchairs to behold brilliance with one of Babylon 5’s finest moments ever in the form of Season Four, Episode 17, Intersections In Real Time [formerly titled One Small Room & Two Men Really Acting Their Asses Off]. There’s something to be said about a director and actors who can pull off a story with limited visual information to inform that story for its entire duration. This installment does just that and does so in spades. What a spectacular achievement. I could go back and watch this one several times. In fact, I did watch it twice.

One of the big reasons this story works so well is the casting of one Raye Birk as William the interrogator. Without the right man for the job this thing could have been an unmitigated disaster. Certainly the writing by J. Michael Straczynski, the direction and the music has got to be there and all of it indeed is every step of the way beginning with the opening music number by Christopher Franke. Franke really sets the tone. Actor Birk is a true character study. He must have had a ball portraying the company man in this fashion. He is a powerful weasel backed by company teeth. Who wouldn’t want that meaty role? I was so impressed by his performance I went to Wikipedia to find out more about him. It turns out he was on one of my favorite shows long ago The Wonder Years. God if I can remember the man, but he must have been good. He also appeared in The X-Files. I look forward to seeing him there when I get to that series for the blog. Anyway, his part is terrific and his manipulative, methodical, studied demeanor is the perfect foil to Bruce Boxleitner’s work, which is also outstanding here. Boxleitner probably doesn’t get enough credit because he has been so consistently good throughout the series. He shines here. He isn't the least bit upstaged by the remarkable Birk. Wayne Alexander also guests as a Drazi in this one. It’s certainly no great secret he played Lorien for all of Season Four and Jack the Ripper in Season Two, Episode 21, Comes The Inquisitor. All in all, Intersections In Real Time is real damn good.

The entirety of the episode takes place within the confines of a single room. It is a riveting drama attack. There are no subplots or breaks in the action to other threads along the way. The interrogation of John Sheridan is the central and only focused point of the story in play here and it is a performance feast for two men. As entertainment goes it is simply brilliant. Boxleitner and Birk make it happen. Birk is to Intersections In Real Time what Wayne Alexander was to Comes The Inquisitor two years earlier. It is a juicy turn. There is so much to share beginning with this first meeting between the interrogator and Sheridan and a simple discussion of, of all things, corned beef to manipulate the proceedings accordingly for Birk.

In a fit of hunger Sheridan snatches the corned beef from the interrogator’s hands, but then pauses to consider that it might just be poisoned. Much discussion of the actual truth is bandied about between these two men throughout the entry. The question of truth is constantly in play. What is the truth?

The truth is fluid. The truth is subjective,” explains the interrogator. “The truth is sometimes what you believe it to be and other times what you decide it to be. My task is to make you decide to believe differently.” How brilliant is this writing? It is so insightful and once again gets to the heart of human behavior. I always thought O.J. Simpson was a perfect example of this. While he was clearly a murderer he had decided to believe certain facts and never veered from that belief. It was delusional in a sense. So we continue to be treated to the behavioral truths of the world via Straczynski. The interrogator manipulates Sheridan with real examples. The Minbari were once enemies, but no longer. “A soldier accepts that the face of truth changes on a daily basis.” The truth never actually changes. It is the perception of truth that changes because people change it and alter the reality of the truth by altering people's view of it. Truth is truth. Still, there are facts and there is truth and then there is everything else. Such things are black and white to me. Perceptions are created that may stem from truth, but are spun to generate something far different. Realities are created that twist truth and fact and we see it daily on television regarding our political leaders. This one is evil. This one is our savior. Believe none of it. Rarely are facts reported accurately. This is why the media does not report truth, but rather contorted agendas. This is why Straczynski’s media arm in the series is an excellent example of truth versus lies. Damn! This is such delicious stuff I'm caught up in the philosophy surrounding truth and I digress. The interrogator specifically plays with the truth when dealing with Sheridan and omits certain facts to create a different reality.

Watch that other hand John.
J. Michael Straczynski is on his game here. The writing is consistently fascinating, thought-provoking and yet thoroughly entertaining. That is a tough line to walk. The whole thing plays out like a stage play. I would love to see this one in a theatre.

The interrogator manipulates words, facts, and truths accordingly. This is a follow-up to the corned beef exchange and I love how Sheridan just digs in with a real sign of strength here. Don’t mess with me. I won't fold.

Pushing our buttons? Well, they really pushed my happy button with this one!
Well, it turns out the interrogator was telling the truth when he said the sandwich wouldn’t kill him, but it was harmful and loaded with toxins by the way. The omission of truth can be nearly as deleterious. The interrogator intends on breaking Sheridan physically and mentally to reach into his mind. Sheridan proves he is such a strong soldier in his ability to box up and protect his mind from harmful influence.

The man insists what he tells Sheridan is the absolute truth. He speaks the truth by limiting his words, but he does not shed light on the full extent of that which he speaks. He avoids details in word and generalizes accordingly. If I were Sheridan I would definitely be asking a lot of questions. Then again, the man is a company man for a corrupt Earth government and cannot be trusted by his very existence.

As I viewed this amazing episode I kept thinking about how limited the visuals were and how I, The Sci-Fi Fanatic, would have difficulty providing worthy photos for this blog entry to my friends here. The scenes are more or less static, but despite these limitations it is electric in its dramatic impact to the viewer. I’m reminded of Castaway with Tom Hanks and what an achievement that was for director and actor to create such a moving picture. This is no easy undertaking. Perhaps Castaway was even harder with just the one actor, but Intersections In Real Time comes close. Director John LaFia serves up an impressive effort keeping the proceedings moving within these limited confines and between the two actors for 42 minutes. It is a gripping, grueling stuff.

The interrogator looks to confirm certain facts with Sheridan concerning who his second-in-command is on Babylon 5. The exchange is pretty humorous actually. I love when Sheridan scoffs at the interrogator’s concept of harmless. The man explains, “There’s no harm in that- no reason you shouldn’t tell me.” Sheridan mutters, “Oh I’m sure there is.”

You know Sheridan would just love to put his hands around his scrawney little neck and throttle him.
Sheridan is growing weaker physically as the interrogator returns each day. Sheridan hobbles back to the chair from the floor. The interrogator plays games with Sheridan’s mind a bit mentioning his father. “Your father, he sends his regards.”

Earth government has furnished a full confession. So kind of them to do so. This is one of the many significant exchanges within those four walls.

An imprisoned Drazi is eventually brought before Sheridan. Wayne Alexander portrays the Drazi. If there was any gripe from me at all it would be that I might have preferred to see someone other than Alexander do the portrayal. His voice is so distinct and after listening to him for all of Season Four as Lorien it’s quite noticeable. Nevertheless, it’s a minor quibble. Following much torture at the hands of Earth's harbingers of doom the Drazi supports the claim that Sheridan has been under alien influence as an alibi for Sheridan. Sheridan is incensed with his government's use of torture and pleads for the Drazi to stop. This is yet another powerful moment for Boxleitner and we learn with just a few words a touch more about the character of our dear friends the Drazi.

The interrogator warns the Drazi this is his “very last chance.” He will be killed. He is dragged away and Sheridan hears the sound of the Drazi scream emanating from another room. The interrogator seeks a “sincere apology” from Sheridan. It cannot be coerced or could be picked up via a telepathic scan. The man tells Sheridan his “superiors” know others will fall in line behind Sheridan if they gain his backing and support.

The interrogator moves to the next phase of Sheridan's reprogramming by leaving a torturous tape loop playing loudly through the evening until his return the next day. When he returns Sheridan is weary and nearly beaten physically. His defenses are weakening. We note he has been removed from solid foods, living intravenously off a drip for sustenance. And now he is to be removed from the drip as well. They need Sheridan’s signature on that dotted line.

Sheridan knows his death will be inevitable once they have what they need. The interrogator tells him he will not be killed. He admits they will come for him someday, but not for some time. The government needs to parade him around for a bit until he is forgotten. They need Sheridan as a “symbol” and “warning” to others who speak or defy Earth’s iron fist of power under Clark rule. An image of Delenn reassures Sheridan as she stands behind the interrogator. His manacles are removed to allow him to sign that confession. This is pure, understated performance at its best.

I don't think I've ever heard the word "no," delivered quite so sincerely and convincingly. The man has failed and is certainly disappointed as he indicates the next move is out of his hands and exits. When he returns he tells Sheridan he is a war hero and a liability to the existing Earth government. Every word he breathes, every move he makes, every breath he takes he is a liability to them. He is a threat. Being a war hero is understandably coupled with credibility. He must be silenced. He tells him the idea of a posthumous confession can be created via technology without his help and that it is indeed “an acceptable option” to his superiors.

He is taken away. It’s his “very last chance.” Sheridan is off to Room 17. Yikes. It even sounds scary. A priest hovers over his moving gurney reciting his last rites. Delenn’s image appears in the doorway to Room 17. A black hooded figure exits the room. Sheridan is removed from the gurney, placed in a chair and another interrogation computer table is brought before him. He is locked back into place. A new interrogator arrives. The figure behind the company man removes the black hood to reveal the Drazi.

I believe this was an amazing end to an amazing episode. It had me thinking once again and I love it when we are left with no easy solutions or Hollywood conclusions that are spelled out for us. I believe the Drazi symbolized life. He was a symbol for Sheridan to stay true, stand strong on his chosen path. I also thought what if the Drazi was real. What if he was never killed? What if he worked for the Earth government and smiled at him out of support for his cause. What if Sheridan’s point was accurate? Perhaps you aren’t expendable if you never give up. Still, I believe the former is a more likely scenario. I give you a penny for your thoughts fellow Babylonians on this one. Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope.

'If by some small miracle I can get my strength back, I am going to kick your ass.'
I stand humbled by this entry in utter awe and amazement of its success and how it was pulled off. The sheer focus and singularity of vision and clarity of this installment was pure genius and really worked for me. I thought it executed and delivered even more successfully than Comes The Inquisitor. I suppose it's a bit like comparing apples to oranges, but the general idea of Sheridan and Delenn [and moreso Delenn] tackling the Inquisitor is similiar. I though Comes The Inquisitor, with Intersections In Real Time now available for comparison, suffered from the occasional brake in tension and pacing to other story lines and this worked to its detriment. I loved the lack of clutter here. 42 minutes in a single room. What an achievement. Those involved had to be proud of this one. It is pure and for that it is one of the best of the series.

Intersections In Real Time: A


Unknown said...

Hey man,

This IS an amazing episode, and as I said in an earlier comment, it even grows on you as you watch it again later.

I believe the Drazi was real - an "actor" working for EarthGov to help break Sheridan. You can see the pride in Sheridan's eyes as he convinces the Drazi to not give in. You can see the sorrow in his eyes when he understands what room 17 is all about. And you can see the betrayal when he realizes the Drazi was in on it all along.

They are using every trick in the book to break him physically and mentally. Physically is definately easier with this war hero. :) Of course, no happy ending here, Sheridan is still in captivity, so much closer to breaking down and losing his grip on reality than in the start of the episode.. Exciting times to follow! :)

Anonymous said...

I am really glad that you enjoyed this episode. I really enjoyed reading your analysis of the psychological stuff that was going on and how JMS didn't shrink away from showing the harshness of the episode by sticking to very simple camera angles, lighting, etc. This is absolutely my fave B5 episode, hands down. I think this episodes really lets Boxleitner stretch his legs a bit and show off his acting skill. But I agree with you that it wouldn't have been nearly as great if the interrogator hadn't been played as skillfully.

SFF said...

Heya guys! It was every bit as terrific as you had both mentioned earlier. I really, really liked this one alot. I can't remember and I haven't gone back to those last moments but I will. So was the Drazi smiling at Sheridan because of who he was representing or was he smiling because he was secretly happy Sheridan didn't break? I cannot quite recall but I will check it again H! Thanks for the kind words Erin. It was a doozy!

Anonymous said...

What is so remarkable about Raye Birk's performance is that he was not the first choice for the character. He had auditioned for the role, but it went to someone else. When that actor was unable to do the role at the last minute, Mr. Birk was called on a Tuesday, and reported for filming two days later on Thursday. (from Jane Killick's season by season book on season four)

SFF said...

That is a really interesting fact. I love facts like that and it's funny you mention Jane Killick's terrific companion books. I have been reading them but staggered. I haven't touched the Season Four book simply for that reason. I don't want anything to taint my viewing. Those books are some of the best companion books I've read to accompany a science fiction series. Anyway, hopefully I'll read the book you reference in the near future, but until I clear this season and get over to Season Five I'm on hold for it. Cheers.