I’m an unabashed fan of the Stargate franchise. If you’ve never seen it, this discussion won’t make any sense to you, so turn back now. If you have, though, I’ll relate the highlights of a discussion my family had about the SGC over dinner tonight:
Me “How many people know about the Stargate program?”
Son “I dunno.”
Me “Well, let’s try to work backwards.”
Son “Ok. There’s 25 teams, so that’s 100 people there.”
Me “Right, plus medical staff. Honey? How many people on the medical staff would you think is appropriate given what we’ve seen?”
Wife “Maybe around 150, including doctors and nurses and corpsmen and so on. They’re kept pretty busy. Plus psych personnel.”
Me “Plus kitchen staff”
Wife “Forty or fifty”
Son: Plus Janitorial staff
Me: “Right. Because even they’d have to have a really high security clearance, and it’s a bit facility in use 24/7/365, so, what, probably another 40 or 50?”
Wife: “What about scientists?”
Me: “Most of the long-term research is done at Area 51.”
Wife: “How many there?”
Me: “Well get back to that. We mostly only ever see Dr. Lee and Sam, but they make it clear there’s others around. Let’s say 20 or 30?”
Son: “Plus at least one space shuttle crew. And the crew of the ISS. And whoever unloads the recovered cargo from a space shuttle.”
Me: “Good point.”
Son: “And let’s not forget the USS Nimitz and that entire carrier group. I mean, yeah, they’re all dead, and the Navy said it was meteors, but a lot of Navy people must have been in on the cover up.”
Me: “Again, good point. Now, area 51: Honey, how long does it take to build an aircraft carrier?”
Wife: “Pretty close to a decade, I think.”
Me: “With tens of thousands of construction workers?”
Wife: “Oh, yeah, totally.”
Son: “I agree the Prometheus and Daedalus class ships were probably about the size of aircraft carriers.”
Me: “They were working on the Prometheus for a while before we saw it, but they can’t have been working on the Daedalus all that long. How many F-304s are there?”
Son: “Daedalus, Odyssey, Apollo, Hammond, Sun Tsu, oh, and the Korolev, which got blown up almost immediately. How many crew for an aircraft carrier?”
Me: “About 5000.”
Son: “They never have anywhere near that number. It’s usually in the hundreds. What’s a skeleton crew for a carrier?”
Me: “If you just want to steer and go forward for a couple days? Maybe a half dozen. If you want to actually DO anything, a couple hundred at least.”
Son: “So they’re probably on skeleton crews.”
Me: “that makes sense.”
Wife: “So we’re guessing about 10,000 people in Cheyenne Mountain, and, what, 30,000 or so in Area 51?”
Son: “At least. Probably more since they’re cranking those ships out one a year.”
Me: “They might be constructing them in other countries.”
Son: “Unlikely. Russia had to beg for one. Probably China, too.”
Me: “Good point. This is increasingly implausible. I could buy it when it was just Cheyenne.”
Son: “Plus the governments of Russia, China, France, England, and Canada.”
Wife: “And all the signatories of the Antarctica treaty. AND what about the contractors and stuff who build all this crap?”
Me: “True. They did say some alien tech was slipping into commercial products by means of corporate espionage by the contractors.”
Son: “Heck, that one guy managed to clone an Asgard.”
Wife: “What about Atlantis? Or Icarus?”
Me: “Let’s ignore them for now. They’re comparatively small operations.”
Wife: “yeah, true. So what do you think?”
Me: “Well, when we started I was going to say maybe 30,000 people, but now that we’re all looking at it reasonably, I’m saying at least 100,000 people, and that’s probably a lowball number.”
So what do you all think?
You may not be able to judge a book by it’s cover, but it occurs to me that you can judge a Babylon 5 episode by its title, at least in the first season anyways. The good episodes have elaborate titles: “Midnight on the Firing Line,” “The Coming of Shadows,” “Signs and Portents,” whereas the ho-hum to lame episodes all have generic one-word titles like “Infection,” “Grail,” “Eyes,” “Survivors,” and “Born to the Purple.”
Oh, wait, that last one…uhm…yeah. And “Believers” was really pretty good. Ok, so it’s not a hard-and-fast law, but it is a fair rule of thumb. This episode has a somewhat generic one-word title as well. Which category do you think it’ll fall into?
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A Minbari funeral party stops off at the station. They’re displaying the body of their great military leader, Branmer, allowing him to lie in state in various locations before he’s taken home for a massive ceremony. While on B5 – where the veterans of the Earth/Minbari war are none-too-pleased about it – his body disappears. Everyone’s in an uproar looking for it, and it’s the biggest mystery since Woody Tobias, Jr,’s directorial debut, “The Strange Disappearance of Doctor Tongue.” Which is to say it’s not so much a mystery as it is a bunch of people wandering around saying, “Here body, heeeeeere body body body” and making those clicking noises that cats and dogs seem to like. Well, dogs like ‘em, cats pretty much ignore them. The Minbari leader of the procession, “Neroon,“ threatens repeatedly to go to war again over this. Ultimately, the mystery is solved, not by the actions or detective abilities of any of our cast, but because a random passing stranger figured it out and told them all about it.
MEANWHILE, a homeless telepathic girl is caught robbing on the Zocalo, and is captured. As a no registered, newly-diagnosed telepath, her options are the Psicorps, Sleeper Drugs, or Prison. Talia tries to encourage her to join the corps, while Ivanova tries to find some other option. Presently she reads Delenn’s mind, and finds out that it was her who stole Branmer’s body. Delenn gives her a job anyway, as a telepath on Minbar. She also saw the word “Chrysalis,” but didn’t know the significance of it. Perhaps Delenn likes the record label? She strikes me as someone who’d probably like Blondie, but probably only in their later, lamer years. I can’t see her listening to “X Offender,” for instance.
Anyway, Delenn fesses up to Neroon and Sinclair about the whole poorly-planned megilla: Branmer was her friend for a long time, he was born into the religious caste, but joined the military because he believed in the war against humanity. He would not approve of having had all this fuss made about his heroism or his death, since he was, at root, religious. Delenn intended to pass off his disappearance as a kind of miracle, his ascension to take his place with the gods. Unfortunately, nothing she did at any point in the episode makes any sense, so she never got around to telling people about the whole “Apotheosis” thing. She lambastes Neroon over the whole dog-and-pony show, then uses the authority of the Grey Council to shut his festering word-hole about the whole thing, and go along with her lie.
He reluctantly agrees. Sinclair and him part on guardedly friendly terms, however.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I know. You’re wondering why I’m covering the show if I’m just complaining about it. I mean, I’m hardly recruiting people to join the Army of Light here, right? Thing is, I’m a huge, obsessive, frankly frightening fan of the show, but I’m also honest (Or honestly frightening, I guess), and I will call a turd a turd. I don’t believe in over-selling things to people. B5 is like a sandwich: Seasons 1 and 5 are basically the bread. Once we get through the bread to the meat, I’ll be full of praise, but all this dry rye is needed to hold the whole thing together, and set up the great stuff that is to come. That said, I do think I would have preferred Pumpernickel.
Alit Neroon is introduced in this episode. From here on out, his repeated appearances tend to swing back and forth between Really Really Important, and Hi, Remember Me?
There’s a really nice – if brief – CGI matte shot of the set where Branmer’s body lies in state. I’m not sure if it’s called “The Chapel” or “The Rotunda,” but I was very surprised to see it this early in the run of the show. In fact, I’d forgotten it existed prior to the 5th season.
Delenn uses the terms “Shai Alit” and “Warleader” interchangeably. That’s evidently like a Field Marshall or 5-star General. “Alit,” meanwhile, is simply General (Four-star). I’m less impressed with the Minbari language here than I am anywhere else: “Alit” = “Elite” and “Shai Alit” = “High Elite.” Outside of “Matya” and “Datya” from “Believers,” B5’s alien linguistics are seldom so obvious.
The Minbari cruiser comes at the station with its gun ports open, and everyone freaks out thinking it’s an attack, but we’re told it’s more like a 21 gun salute or a missing man formation at a military funeral. How is it that Sinclair doesn’t know this? He runs a diplomatic station, after all. And wouldn’t the Minbari have briefed him just to make sure before hand? I mean, if there’s a 21 gun salute, generally it’s announced beforehand not to freak the neighbors out…
We’ll see the “Open Gun Ports” thing again later, by the way. That makes things her make even less sense in retrospect, as it should be infamous.
We’re told that the Earth/Minbari war was started by humans. This is the second reference to it, the first was when the Soul Hunter blamed it on us. Garibaldi refers to it as a horrible accident. Again, this’ll be explored more later on. The great Minbari ruler Dukhat gets a second name check here.
Na’Toth, Corwin, and The
French Swiss Chick show up. I’m thinking Earthforce must not have regulations about hair length. Saw a uniformed marine dude walking past with a rat-infested FM Radio pony tail in this episode. And Corwins’ is a bit long…
The homeless girl telepath plot just doesn’t work well, even though it’s more integrated into the A-story than most of those we’ve seen. Unfortunately it was miscast. We’re told the girl is about twelve, but the actress is obviously quite a bit older than that. IMDB doesn’t have her age listed, but I’d say she’s at least 20. She’s cute as heck, don’t get me wrong, but seeing someone who’s obviously an adult acting all childish and infantile – well, there’s a disconcerting Stinky Muldoon quality to it that my female friends commented on at the time. (Well, they didn’t mention Stinky, of course. What hip, with it, empowered ‘90s woman even knows who Joe Besser was?)
All the blame can’t be laid on her, however. She’s saddled with the most atrociously cloying dialog. She’s supposed to come across like a smart Oliver Twist kind of kid, but that dog don’t hunt. Witness, for instance, the pivotal scene where she decries Ivonova and Talia for talking about what they want and not what’s best for her. That came out way too whiney, and it’s followed by allegedly insightful female dialog about “Wanting to know about all my options.” Again, this is supposed to be smart and all, but the writing is so bad that Dame Judy Dench couldn’t have spat those lines out without sounding like she was comparison shopping for deodorants. “Which is best? Teen Spirit or the other kind?”
(This association is probably forever locked in my head because my local affiliate endlessly ran Teen Spirit commercials during B5. Remember the one with the girl riding her bike around on the roof? That one. I can not tell you how much I hate having this kind of crap locked in my head. I’m a 49-year-old man, fer gosh sakes! Still, my OCD and semi-eidetic memory is your gain)
This episode is the first one to really feature the Warrior caste, and it also shows some significant political tension in the Minbari to match that in the Earth Alliance and the Centauri Republic. Specifically, a schism has been growing between the Warrior and Religious Castes since the war. The Warriors have very different bone structure than the religious ones do. It’s much more jaggedy and pointy, and, as we’ll eventually see in season 3, pretty dangerous as well.
Some human Telepaths are born with their abilities functioning, others get ‘em ‘round puberty. The Narn have no telepaths, and wanted to buy the girl’s DNA. The Minbari consider Telepathy to be a kind of public service that is venerated by their society, and they have a kind of wandering mendicant existence. Minbari culture encourages people to contribute to the support of the venerated, for which they are greatly praised. Alien minds feel strange and frightening to human Telepaths.
Minbari society appears to be matrilineal.
The Pak’Ma’Ra – those aliens with the hunchback and the face tentacles – are carrion eaters. They speak with translator machines. They occasionally steal dead bodies. They say the Narn “Taste just like chicken.” The shot of an angry Pak’Ma’Ra is surprisingly expressive, and cool. I love that a lot of the aliens in this show really seem alien.
The Llort are packrats who’ll steal anything shiny.
So lemme get this straight: it’s the 23rd century, and they can do realtime voice translation of alien languages, but Garibaldi couldn’t make a translation of his Japanese owners manual last week?
Harriman Grey said Ivanova’s thoughts about Talia were so strong that he couldn’t help hearing them. Talia must be aware of ‘em, right? Talia buys Ivanova a drink at the end of this ep, so I guess they’re moving past Susan’s hatred or something? Huh.
Speaking of which: The girl scans Susan’s mind briefly, and Susan is annoyed, but not nearly so devastated as last week’s ep would lead us to believe she should be. Presumably, it was Psicorps she objected to more than the act itself.
Delenn’s mention of “The gods” is a bit confusing in light of what we later learn about Minbari religion. This is the only mention of Minbari gods in the run of the franchise, and later on she expressly says her people don’t believe in that concept. Presumably JMS was still hammering down the details at this point.
Anyway, that’s my take on the whole thing. Thanks for reading. What do you fine folks thing?
Guess what stupid thing grabbed my attention this week? A dumb TV series called “Salvage 1.” If you don’t remember it, don’t knock yourself out over it. BOTH seasons aired between January and November of 1979. Yeah, BOTH seasons. It aired as a midseason replacement, did a half-order season of 12 episodes + the TV movie, then jumped in to production of Season 2. The 2nd season was cancelled three episodes in. There were three more episodes that never aired.
I remember first hearing about this show while my mom was in the hospital, and a commercial was on the TV in her room. My mom was sickly. A lot of my late-70s SF recolections involve hospitals. Man From Atlantis, for instance.
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Harry Broderick (Andy Griffith) is a junk-and-salvage dealer who is as amiable as, well, Andy Griffith, and he’s extremely good at his job. The brilliant opening sequence has him purchasing a biplane for one third less than the seller wanted, then selling the engine and body separately to two different buyers (One owns a theme restaurant, the other is a plane restorer who needs an engine) for one third MORE than they wanted to pay. He even shoots a hole in the seat of the plane to make it look more “Authentic” to World War 1. His secretary/ex-wife comments on how he “Made $25,000 just on the drive in to work. Not a bad morning.” Harry seems unimpressed with himself. He pulls this kind of crap all the time.
Now, Harry was a fighter pilot in the Korean War, and he’s got a fascination for the space program. A couple of his workers are ex-NASA engineers whom he hired “When the space program folded,” and they needed jobs. He pays them three or four times what their jobs are really worth. He just likes having them around, and he’d hire more if he could. He’s very good at his job and rich. One day he springs a crazy plan on them: “I want to build a space ship, go to the moon, salvage all the junk we left up there, bring it back, and sell it to the highest bidder.” Apart from his ex-wife, the others are pretty receptive to this. They start buying up NASA surplus engines and whatnot that are rusting away in storage across the country.
Harry approaches Skip Carmichael (Joel Higgins), an ex-Astronaut who’s now selling used cars. He was a maverick who published a book on “Trans-linear acceleration.” Rather than getting a big burst of speed, you accelerate slowly but constantly until you get half-way to your destination, then you turn around and decelerate the rest of the way. Because you’re accelerating or decelerating at a steady 1-G, there’s no weightlessness, no orbits, it’s easy. However in order to pull this off with a ship smaller than the World Trade Center, they need an experimental and highly-dangerous fuel called “Monohydrazine.”
Trish Stewart (Melanie Slozar) was NASA’s biggest expert on exotic fuels, and Skip’s ex-girlfriend as well. She’s working on pyrotechnical effects in the movies, and for comedic reasons she gets fired just as Skip and Harry arrive. She agrees to work for them simply for the paycheck and has no faith in the project, which she regards as totally insane.
They set about working on building the ship – “The Buzzard” – and that ends the first act. That also ends the really super-fun part of the movie.
The second act is about what you’d expect: a lot of montages of building the ship (The capsule is the mixer from a cement truck!) various setbacks, the occasional explosion, and the conclusion that they need a guidance system for take off and landing. Since they can’t build one they “Steal” one from a big computer company. More specifically, they go to a big computer lab, smuggle in a program one of the old NASA techs wrote, hack in via a phone line and take control of the computer for the few minutes they need it. I say “Hack,” but remember: this is before “Hacking” was a thing, or at least before it was in the popular parlance. Likewise the scene where they explain what a phone modem is is utterly charming. Also, the FBI notices something is going on, and keep them under surveillance. Jack Klinger (Richard Jeckel) is the FBI agent, and he’s just tedious. Still, it’s not bad.
In the third act, they get word that the FBI is about to shut them down, so they launch early, and it is at this point that the movie kind of hits the skids, counterintuitively enough. Skip and Mel get to the moon largely without incident, though the FBI are jerks to Harry and company back on earth. Then the computer company wipes the guidance program as part of routine maintenance, meaning the Buzzard can’t get back to earth. Then they take damage on lunar landing. Then the cabin fills up with noxious gases, and then they run out of air, and end up making an emergency landing in a park. It’s a thrill a minute, but none of it is very thrilling. Harry manages to manipulate the FBI in to buying all the Apollo 17 salvage, rather than let it go to the Soviets, and admits on TV that “Going to the moon is really dangerous. We’ll leave that to NASA from now on.”
In the epilog, a city leader from Northern California asks the team if they’d consider moving an iceberg to help them with their drought problems.
Neither I nor anyone else in America watched the ensuing series. I think I only saw one full episode, which had them going to a haunted house. Yawn. About half the episodes evidently involved FBI agent Klinger having them run errands for national security off the books. The show seems to have suffered from what I call the “Blue Thunder Syndrome:” You’ve got a really cool toy, which is utterly unsuited for solving 90% of all problems, so you either have to come up with a number of increasingly convoluted perils that can ONLY be solved by a space ship/police helicopter, or you just need to resign yourself to the ship/copter doing little more than moving you from home to the location of this week’s adventure.
The second season premier actually DID involve them moving an iceberg for that town. I didn’t watch it, I just remember the commercials. They disassembled the rocket, mounted the engines on the berg, and then pushed it. One of the engines blew up. That’s all I know.
The scene of Skip explaining “Trans Linear Acceleration” to Harry in a car at a racetrack is pretty brilliant. This show is where I first learned of the continual-acceleration method of space travel, though it had already been a cliché in SF for like 50 years. I was young. It was the first time I’d heard of it. I’ve since used it quite a bit myself.
While the show is far from scientifically accurate, it tries hard to at least explain its core concept in realistic detail. She show’s scientific consultant was anything-for-a-buck Isaac Asimov.
I like that two members of the cast – Harry and Mel – are unapologetically Southern. It never comes up, but they never try to hide it either.
Andy Griffith, of course, went on to continue being Andy Griffith.
Joel Higgens – Scott – went on to star in a pretty good sitcom called “Best of the West,” in which he’s a Union Army vet who moves west with his family. It got good ratings, but the network dickered too long on whether to renew it (Period sitcoms are more expensive than present-day ones), and by the time they made up their mind, Joel has already taken a job as the dad in Silver Spoons.
Trish Stewart – Mel – gave up acting a couple years after this. Her final credit is a Fantasy Island episode in 1981. She’d been guest-starring in TV shows since 1973, and this show was her big break. Alas…
Richard Jaeckel – Klinger – went on to work steadily in character roles until the mid-1990s. After this he guest starred in a lot of shows, and was on the cast of “At Ease,” (No, I don’t remember it either), “Spenser: For Hire,” and the 93/94 season of “Baywatch.”
“Salvage” was a TV movie that would have been a standalone movie of the week, if it didn’t test well, or would have served as a pilot for a series if people liked it. It did well enough with test audiences that they decide to just forgo the wait and jump in to production. It offered everything you could really want in an SF show of the late 70s: fairly cheap to produce, charming cast, good-enough characters, mild thrills, a good sense of humor, and so forth. The network was right to buy it. Hell, I’d buy it now, even with the structural problems. It’s a good concept. It’s got a charming 1950s “Destination Moon” feel to it.
Worth a watch if you get the chance. The entire movie is avaliable on Youtube, but, alas, the series has never been issued on DVD.
It’s possible that I haven’t watched this episode since it first aired in ‘94. My son says that I did watch it when we last went through the whole series some years back, but I have no knowledge of it. I remember the ep, particularly the ending, but overall my memories were pretty squishy, which is unlike me. Maybe I left the room, or fell asleep? I do know that this was one of those episodes that I tended to avoid in reruns, much like the Space Hippies episode of TOS. There wasn’t much there to hold my interest.
Unlike the filthy Space Hippies, however, this episode isn’t gruelingly embarrassing, and while it’s basically a “The story so far” bottle show in a series that is clearly struggling to kill time until The Big Ideas kick in, it’s not all bad. Not bad at all, really, just a bit dull.
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Two guys turn up on the station, conspicuously asking questions about Commander Sinclair. When Garibaldi comes to check this out, they reveal themselves as Colonel Ari ben Zayn of Earthforce, and Harriman Grey of Psicorps. (Isn’t that a great name? “Harriman Grey?” Sounds like a 1930s hard-boiled detective. A shame it’s wasted in a one-off here). Ben Zayn is Internal Affairs, or “Eyes” as they’re called. They’re on the station to investigate senior officers and administer loyalty oaths – no, really! – in the wake of the bombing of Phobos Base, which Earthforce believes had inside help.
Ivanova reacts badly to this, and says she’ll resign if she’s forced to be scanned by Grey. Grey actually sympathizes, and he’s a genuinely sympathetic character, the first one we’ve really seen among telepaths. I know we’re supposed to believe Talia is a good guy, but she’s too cold and aloof to really make that impression. The best that can be said is that she’s not terrible, so Grey is our first positive. Ivanova has nighmares about her mom, and ultimately attempts to resign.
The whole investigation is a witch hunt, of course – because no reasonable investigation of people’s loyalties can ever be allowed on TV for some reason – and it turns out that ben Zayn was passed over for command of B5 in favor of Sinclair. He removes Sinclair from command and takes over himself, but all returns to normal when Sinclair is able to force the guy into a frenzy, at which point Grey realizes the man is a whackjob and shuts him down.
MEANWHILE, Garibaldi and Lannier build a motorcycle, in a subplot that pretty much screams “We need a subplot, but we don’t care about it at all!”
This is basically what Trek used to call “A bottle show.” It takes place entirely on standing sets, with no new effects or whatever. These were usually done when another episode in the season went over budget. Let’s say you’ve got a million bucks per episode to spend, and the episode ends up costing 1.1 million. The way to fix it is to make sure some other episode in the season only costs .9 million to film. Or, you can spread it over several episodes: Let’s say your blowout episode costs 2 million, you make that up by filming ten .9 million dollar episodes. Stargate: Atlantis was pretty notorious for this, with three big eps a year (season opener, midseason 2-parter, season finale) and sixteen “Walking in the woods” episodes. I exaggerate, but not by much. In any event, this episode was probably written to make up for the added costs of an episode like “Signs and Portents.”
Ben Zayn is performed in a very one-note stereotypical manner, but some of the things he says are interesting. What’s his obsession with Garibaldi, for instance? They’re adversarial from the getgo, but ben Zayn genuinely seems to trust and even like the guy.
At one point, Garibaldi refers to the Jewish colonel as “Colonel Ari ben Hitler.” Wow! Granted, the guy’s a jerk and all, but I can’t imagine anything more offensive to a Jew. I’m surprised that one got through the censors.
Zayn says he got his scar “In Israel,” and that he’s been involved in fighting at “New Jerusalem,” and “Cyrus III.” The latter is obviously a planet, but are they seriously still fighting in Israel that far into the future? I’m assuming “New Jerusalem” is probably a city in Israel, and not a planet as well.
Lots of continuity porn in this ep. Every episode of the series gets some kind of overt reference in the dialog. We’re told that this whole dog and pony show was set up by Mr. Bester, as revenge for the Psicop who got killed.
Ivanova’s nightmare is rather cloying and not very interesting, and not nearly as creepy as it’s intended to be. They get better at this sort of thing in the future. A glimpse we get into Londo’s dreams later on in the series is positively chilling in a way seldom seen outside of 1960s anthology shows. Here, though, it’s kinda lame. Basically she’s afraid of turning into her mom, and sharing her mom’s fate. There is a bit of foreshadowing in this. Wait for it.
I love Lennier! He’s genuinely interested in the people and places around him – remember, he’s been cloistered in a temple his entire life – and he loves finding out new stuff. He’s completely fascinated by the motorcycle. We’ll see more of Lennier paired up with odd people as the series progresses. It’s comedy gold. In one scene, Lennier is sitting on the floor chanting “Zabagabee Zabagabee Zabagabee.” Bill Mumy is also a professional musician, and was in a band called “The Generators” at the time. That was the name of their current album.
Just like Zima in “TKO,” the motorcycle in this episode was thought to be product placement. In fact, it wasn’t. Why do it, then? Perhaps to show some direct tie-in to the present world? Perhaps to demonstrate to potential investors how product placement would work? Who knows. In any event, we never see the bike, nor hear reference to it ever again. The scene of it driving along the corridor in the end is a fairly obvious CGI effect, since their insurance wouldn’t cover it running on-set.
Phobos is a moon of Mars, and a very logical place for a base. It’s basically already in a space station orbit. This is the first we’ve heard of independence movements and terrorist groups back home. “Free Mars” is the most prominent of these. We’re told that they exist on every human colony world (About two dozen total), and are gaining in power. In fact, here’s the total political picture: Earth Central – the government – is losing control, there’s the independence thing, which frequently overlaps with the terrorism thing, President Santiago is unpopular and attacked on all sides, and won re-election by the skin of his teeth, thanks primarily to a Psicorps endorsement which violated their charter. There’s anti-alien groups, and the economy is in the crapper. It’s much like our world, really.
Telepaths can not be used to check loyalty. It’s against the law. Also, Telepaths are forbidden to be in the military. I wonder why? That’d seem like an asset, unless it might divide their otherwise-obsessive loyalty to the Psicorps.
Gray says Ivanova’s thoughts of Talia Winters are very strong, so strong it’s hard not to pay attention to them. Can you guess why?
“Command Privilege” in Earthforce allows a commander to question new rules that seem, well, questionable, until after they’ve been reviewed by a board of five command-grade officers. It’s not a bad idea, really.
Curiously, ben Zayn’s uniform is a different color from anyone else’s, more like an Army green. Also, unlike anyone before or after him in the run of the show, he’s wearing U.S. Colonel’s rank on his epaulets. Odd. Much, much later on, Captain Lochley is promoted and wearing the same thing, though on the standard Blue uniform. I’d forgotten about them here until now. Earthforce Rank never makes any sense to me.
Jack and Lou Welch both show up, though curiously the
French Swiss chick doesn’t. Jack converses with the Colonel, though we can’t hear what he’s saying. Is this significant?
The third-in-command of the station is “Major Itumbe,” who isn’t seen here, and is never mentioned again.
“Airdome” is the Earthforce Pilot Academy. And hey! In the 23rd century, people still salute just like we do! Well, maybe a bit sloppier…
“LaGrange 2” is mentioned as being a significant space station “A stone’s throw from Mars.” If it’s a lagrange of Mars, it’d be as far away from the planet as the planet is from the sun. Hardly “A stone’s throw.”
We’re told gasoline engines were completely out of use by 2035. That probably seemed reasonable in 1994/95, but here in 2016, brother, it ain’t gonna happen.
Harriman Grey returns prominently in “Voices,” the first B5 novel, written by John Vornhort. I won’t be covering that one here, because it’s pretty terrible, and apart from one short paragraph (“Invisible Isabel”) it’s not at all canonical.
So, bottom line: Filler. This is the bread on the table before the steak comes. Don’t mistake it for the real meal.
The second flat-out great episode in a row, and a total barn-burner of a story at that. From this point on the story begins to move faster and with more impetus.
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The raiders have stepped up their attacks on shipping to and from the station. Unfortunately, by the time B5 can get fighters out there, the raiders have disappeared. No one can figure out how they’re getting away, since fighters need to use jump gates just like any other small ship, and the nearest two are four hours and six months away traveling by ship, respective. Only really big ships have the mass needed to create their own jump point.
MEANWHILE, Londo has paid a spooky man to recover “The Eye,” the earliest and most prominent relic of the Republic, belonging to the first emperor, and lost in a battle 100 years ago. Lord Kiro and his aunt, Lady Ladira come to the station to take the Eye back home, but Ladira is instantly best by violent signs and portents of the destruction of the station. (Remember, all Centauri are born knowing the circumstances of their deaths, so their species has some precognition. These kinds of visions are not to be taken lightly, and Ladira, we’re told, is precognizant enough to be the official Prophetess of House Kiro.) Just the same, Kiro doesn’t take her seriously, saying she’s been wrong before, and that when he was born she foretold he “Would be killed by shadows.” He and Londo have a good laugh about the nonsensicalness of that, so you know it’ll be relevant later on.
MEANWHILE, a mysteriously affable Rod Serling-esque man named “Morden” arrives at the station, and starts asking all the ambassadors the same question: “What do you want?” He finds all their answers unacceptable, excepting Londo, who wants perpetual power and glory for his people.
MEANWHILE, Sinclair asks Garibaldi to look into the matter of his missing 24 hours at the line, but asks him to keep quiet about it. Garibaldi doesn’t find what he was looking for, but he Does discover that the Minbari would only support the station financially if they had final say on who the CO would be, and they rejected everyone but Sinclair. Neither of them know why.
While taking the Eye to his ship, raider agents kidnap Kiro and steal the eye. Turns out they’ve got a huge aircraft carrier ship, which is how they’ve been jumping in and out. A huge battle takes place, and the raiders don’t make much of a showing for themselves in the face of a fair fight against non-civilians: 11 raiders destroyed, 4 captured, versus 2 Earthforce destroyed and four damaged. The mothership gets away, however.
In an exposition dump we find out Kiro was in league with the raiders, feeding them information on shipping, and hoping to use their muscle and the Eye to overthrow the Emperor and take his place. They’ve been using him, however, and have no interest in anything apart from ransoming the eye for buttloads of cash. Suddenly a ship or space monster or maybe a little of both appears and destroys the raider vessel, killing all aboard.
Despondent, Londo grouses over what all this will mean to his career when Morden shows up again bearing a “Present from friends you didn’t know you had,” and gives him the eye.
MEANWHILE, Lady Ladira telepathically implants her vision of the fall of Babylon in Sinclairs’s mind: We see a shuttle escape as the whole station explodes. Sinclair asks if this is carved in stone or can be changed. She says she doesn’t know.
When I first watched this episode in ‘94, my friend Heather – who wasn’t very much into SF – turned to me and said “Whoa! What kind of show Shows you a glimpse of the final episode half way through the first season?” That’s still pretty impressive. There’s been a recurring theme of prophecy in this show, generally involving the Centauri, who are, of course, mildly precognizant. We’ve heard tell of Londo and G’kar killing each other twenty years into the future; we’ve actually seen the destruction of B5 itself. If these are things that must be, and not things that may be, it’s a dark future indeed. Now, if we couple this with G’kar’s assertion that no one on the station is what they appear to be, then it follows that no event caused by these people is exactly what it seems to be. If we extrapolate from that, and apply it to prophecy, then what do we get? Think about it. No, really. See what you can come up with.
The Delta pilot guy from “Survivors” turns up here again, as does The
French Swiss Chick. We also get introduced to Lt. Corwin, who gets a lot of the sorts of lines that would ordinarily go to The French Swiss Chick.
The Centauri telepathic abilities seem to vary greatly from person to person, and in some people they’re quite sharp, as with Ladira. She can actually allow others to see her visions. What other telepathic powers might the Centauri have? By the way, have you noticed the Centauri chicks lack the vampire teeth the men have? And for that matter, have you noticed that the older ones tend to be completely bald, while the younger, hotter, more bustier-friendly chicks tend to have that long pony tail?
Morden’s an instantly interesting new character, isn’t he? Simultaneously affable and creepy. He avoids Kosh. Why? Why is he interested in the ambassadors and what is it about Londo’s answer that he likes? G’kar’s answer was the (Violent) extinction of the Centauri (“I want to rip the marrow from their bones with my teeth”) but he had no plans beyond that. Delenn never answered.
What’s the triangle thing on Delenn’s forehead, by the way? It appeared as a kind of warning when Morden came by, and she hid it and booted him out. She also saw him very poorly lit, and said “They are here.” What does she know about these folks?
Ladira said Kiro would be killed by shadows, and indeed he was. Let’s call this mysterious new force “The Shadows.”
The Raiders would appear to be toast, and this is basically the end of their plot arc. They were placeholders for the more important stuff to come. Now that it’s here, they serve no purpose…
I love the battle scene, the first one really ever on an American SF show to use actual strategy and logic, rather than “Phasers on full! Shoot shoot bang bang! Fwoom!” I also love the panic inside the station – the air raid sirens, people bustling about inside, trying to get to safety shelters, and so on. Very well done. This is also the first time we see the station’s defense grid in action.
Garibaldi can fly fighters. Interestingly, whenever Ivanova or he take a fighter out, they become the squadron leader. There must be a regular leader, right?
The Cobra Bays take about four hours to reload. How many fighters does B5 have, anyway?
The scene involving the raiders and Ladira’s coffee cup was beautifully filmed, don’t you think?
We’ve heard a lot on the show about Earth’s problems and changing political landscape. Turns out Centauri Prime is having ‘em too: The emperor hasn’t been seen in public in a year, there’s unrest, the Senate is very unpopular. Kiro finds this a good time for a coup, but Londo warns him that if he tries he’ll be dead within a day.
“I’d very much like to know how you acquired this.”
“No you wouldn’t.”
The battle of Na’Shock – where the eye was lost – sounds like a kind of Narn name, doesn’t it? I wonder what the circumstances surrounding that were? But well never find out.
There’s a none-too-subtle scene of G’kar and Londo arguing at an elevator, with a human standing between them, getting caught in it. When the elevator finally comes, they’re oblivious to it and keep arguing, but the man zips in and the thing leaves. Get it?
This is very obviously a major turning-point episode. Everything up to here was establishing the rules of the game. Now the game actually starts, though it’ll take a bit for it to really get rolling. Straczynski actually gives titles to his seasons as a whole, generally named after the ep he finds most important. This season is named “Signs and Portents” as a whole.
This one is a watershed, kids; B5’s first actual important, game-changing episode. It’s likely that many will be offended by my opinions at the end, but all these reviews are my opinion in the first place. If I think this is a stupendiously important episode, then my reasons for thinking so are important, right? Even if you don’t agree with them. Even if I’m wrong, which, as usual, I might well be.
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There’s an accident in the docking bays when a Narn transport and a defective ship elevator collide. The investigation quickly proves that the defect was caused by contractors using substandard equipment when building B5 in order to come in on-budget. (And even in the future, “Lowest Bidder” gets the job as they specifically point out here) On top of that, the thousand-or-so dockworkers who load and unload cargo from the ships that visit B5, and refuel them, have been understaffed and underbudgeted since day one. Most of them are working double shifts, with less than ten hours off before they have to do it all over again. Triple shifts aren’t uncommon. It’s a hard life, and now, thanks to these privations, people are starting to die.
Making matters worse, B5’s new fiscal year budget (Yeah, they’ve still got those in the future too!) has come out, and the Dockworkers Guild didn’t get any increases. Sinclair struggles to cope with the situation, but it quickly gets out of hand, and it ends up in an illegal strike in a strategically-important defense-related job (B5 is a military outpost, after all). “Illegal” since their contract states they can’t strike under any circumstances. The senate sends in Orrin Zento, a labor negotiator, to mediate the dispute. He makes a sort of token pro-forma half-interested attempt to end the strike, but mostly he condescends and threatens, and it’s fairly obvious (Though never stated) that he wants the situation to go bad for some nefarious reason. Sinclair, meanwhile, has been going over the budget and reading all the senate agreements pertaining to the situation.
A riot breaks out, and Zento imposes “The Rush Act,” which everyone is afraid of, and which hasn’t been used in years, but it’s apparently pretty draconian. Sinclair marches right into the middle of the riot, and says “The Rush Act empowers me to end the strike by any means necessary, correct?”
Sinclair: “And I have your complete support in whatever I do?”
Zento: “Yes, of course.”
Sinclair: “Ok, I am hereby allocating 1.2 million credits from Babylon 5’s military budget to be used towards hiring more workers and upgrading our substandard equipment.”
And the strike is over! Zento is furious, and leaves the station. Senator Hidoshi contacts Sinclair to tell him that he’s personally quite pleased with his solution, but also to warn him in no uncertain terms that there were those in the Senate who wanted the situation to turn ugly, and Sinclair has now angered a lot of them and made some powerful enemies.
MEANWHILE, that Narn transport was carrying a “G’quon Eth” plant, a rare Narn plant difficult to grow, hard to transport, expensive to own. It is, however, crucial for the most important religious ritual of the Narn: When the first rays of light strike G’quon mountain on Narn on a set day of the year, they have to offer prayers and sing while putting the seeds or nuts or berries or whatever of the G’quon Eth plant in a holy fire. As the highest ranking member of his faith on B5, it is G’kars’ duty to lead the ceremony and provide the plant. It must happen at the exact same moment the sunlight hits the mountain throughout every Narn community in the galaxy. He made arrangements months ago for one to be shipped out, but it ended up overdue and of course it got destroyed in the crash.
As it happens, Londo has one. The nuts or seeds or berries or whatever evidently have some hallucinogenic qualities, which are quite enjoyable when plunked in an alcoholic beverage. The taunts and torments G’kar in pretty humorous fashion, and G’kar tries various methods to get the plant – including buying it – but Londo has no intention of letting him have it. Ultimately, G’kar complains to mom – Sinclair – but owing to the strike he can’t get to resolving the situation until after the prescribed moment for the ceremony. He rules the plant a “Controlled substance” and confiscates it, then gives it to G’kar with instructions to pay Londo for it. G’kar is quite depressed until Sinclair points out that the light which touched G’quon mountain a decade ago will be reaching B5 in several hours, and they can have the ceremony then.
Impressed, G’kar genuinely and effusively thanks him, and rushes off to lead the ceremony on the observation deck.
This is exactly how you should do a B5 episode: Solid dramatic A-story, equally solid humorous exotic world building B-story. Both are interesting, both make good use of their time, both are thought provoking, and both intersect at the beginning and end of the hour, complimenting each other. This episode was written by Straczynski’s wife who, by Joe’s own admission, knows the B5 universe better than anyone excepting himself. I always wished she’d write some other episodes, alas…
Some years later, she did write the only good B5 novel out of that first batch.
They’re divorced now, by the way.
If an earth decade equals 12.2 Narn years, then that means a Narn year is 298.5 earth days. This implies it orbits a cooler star than our own, and is consistent with the red lighting we see in G’kars’ quarters: They orbit a red giant. This is really the only acknowledgement of different spectral classes for stars in the entire run of the show.
“G’quon” is a Narn prophet/religious leader from 1000 years ago*. (There’s that number again!) We’ll find out more about him, and it will be relevant. Despite G’kars’ frequent malfeasance and hatred and sexual perversion and chicanery, he seems to really believe in it and hold it in high personal regard. Londo accuses him of using the religion for the power and prestige it brings, but in fact G’kar seems to be genuinely anguished that he can’t do the ceremony, and legitimately overjoyed when he finds out he can later on. There’s some real reverence there. Na’Toth is an agnostic or an atheist, though her father was a follower of “G’lon,” a different Narn religion.
Despite being polytheistic, the Centauri consider the Narns to be “Pagans, still worshiping their sun.” Odd, no? The Centauri maintain a “Cultural Center” on the station, which houses the idols of their whole pantheon, and evidently serves as a temple for religious services.
The Earth Alliance (The government comprising Earth and all its colonies) is in the middle of an economic recession.
Sinclair becomes increasingly stubbly and bedraggled over the course of this episode, and visibly more worn out. At the end he mentions he hasn’t slept in two days.
“New Kobe” and “New California” are mentioned, though it’s unclear if these are planets or regions on planets or cities or space stations or what. Mars Colony, Europa, Ganymede, and Io (The latter three being moons in our solar system) are all mentioned to have had major strikes in the past. Ganymede had a pretty famous strike situation in ‘37 that lost some lives, and The Rush Act was last invoked on Europa.
There’s some fan speculation about the nature of the Rush act. Though specific terms are never mentioned, everyone is afraid of it, and the implication is it’s pretty harsh, far harsher than needed. Why would such a law exist, and why would you need a Senate vote to enact it? Some fans back in the day believed its only previous usage was on Europa, and that during the Earth/Minbari war, when workers would have been severely overused and when a strike would have seriously impeded the war efforts. I think this is a fair speculation. It is ONLY speculation, however.
“The Rush Act” is named after Rush Limbaugh, as a kind of in-joke by the writer.
Neither Zento nor the Union Leader chick were terribly believable in this. The guy who played Zento was previously seen as the second Soul Hunter a while back. As to the chick, I have to think she was simply miscast. I get what they were going for: diminutive chick who’s forceful out of all proportion to her size, but it just doesn’t work. She yells like a woman who hasn’t yelled much, you know?
Senator Hidoshi is, as always, a bit of a wad, but he does actually come out as a friend of Sinclair and the station this time out.
Zento is said to be twelve hours from the station, so where was he coming from? B5 is days earth.
Boring Science Stuff: If Narn orbits a red star, and if that star is 10 LY from B5, and if B5 orbits Epsilon Eridani, then there are two contenders for the location of the planet: the stars V577 Monoceri and Luyten Half-Second 1723. I know, I know, stars have crazy names. Of the two, Monoceri is the less likely since it’s a binary star system, but in fact both are really super cold and unsuited for carbon based life. If Narn orbits a red giant (More likely), then there are no contenders within the parameters given.
“Credits” are actually called “Commercial Credits,” sort of an international trade unit.
G’kar swears “By my pouch” on one occasion. That’s right, the Narn are marsupial lizards! This is the first mention of it.
This is our first time seeing The observation deck. The scene was intended for a generic internal room in the station, but they cobbled the set together at the last minute because they felt it needed a bit more magic and visual oomph. They were right: It’s a very nice scene, and it wouldn’t work any other way.
Jack shows up in the riot scene, the
French Swiss Chick is here as always, and the reporter chick from “Midnight on the Firing Line” shows up unexpectedly as well. Ivanova gets another amusing badass scene.
“Morph Gas” can be pumped in to knock out the workers, and then they can haul ‘em off to the brig.
“So,” you ask, “Why is this an important episode, Randy?” Well I’ll tell ya’: Science fiction on TV was generally regarded as goofy kid stuff, and not without good reason on occasionif we’re honest. Space-based SF set in the future is even worse, as the writers and producers frequently take that as a license to throw any and all real-world concerns out the window, which makes their fictional world all the less consistent and renders it a thing of plastic to be twisted and shaped or even contradicted at whim. This is made worse still by some of the more socially impaired fans – and yeah, I’m just going to say it: a LOT of us are – who are drawn to SF because they don’t like real world stuff in the first place. Romantic love? Money? Religion? Politics? Crime? Law? Art? Sports? Don’t want me none o’ that, I just want sets that look like a dentists’ office thinly-defined characters who stomp around fascist space pajamas giving easy solutions to nonexistent problems. Yeah! Chairman Mao rules!
This is not true of ALL fans by any stretch, nor is it even true of most, but it is true of a very significant minority, though mercifully shrinking as SF becomes more and more accepted.
B5 was really the first American SF series to say “People in the future will still be people, and hence we will still have all the problems arising from people.” This episode in particular, was the first one to really do that, and the first American SF show EVER to deal with economics in a reasonable fashion. This was unbelievably refreshing after half a decade of Trek’s utopian socialism. Leaving money aside, this is the first time we get to see a blue-collar perspective of life in space, a world in which low-status not-terribly-well educated people like most of us still exist. Trek makes a big deal out of the “Perfectability” of the human species, but in fact there’s something vaguely exclusionary about that, isn’t there? They might say that everyone in the future is beautiful or handsome and educated, and gainfully employed in some adventurous or interesting or artistic pursuit, and yet this “Kalifornia Uber Alles” view of life is conspicuously absent of people with long hair or folks with obnoxious hobbies, or people who really don’t give a crap about understanding your emotional needs, they just want you to fix the fracking dishwasher; or snore, or won’t shut up about Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; or who are even particularly human at all. It’s a vaguely Aryan view of the future. It’s Aryan minus the skin color requirement, but with every bit as much uniformity and dogma.
This episode of B5 changed all that: The dockworkers are clearly lower class, but they take their jobs seriously, they love their families, they’re very upset when one of their own dies. They get angry, they lash out, but they regret their actions after they calm down. They work crappy jobs for miserable bosses who don’t care, you know, just like real people. Just like a lot of us. Maybe most of us. They deal with recessions. Many of them are ugly, all of them are very physical. At least one of them appears gay (Check out the dude clapping behind Garibaldi when Sinclair reveals his solution), they are neither propagandistically good nor stereotypically bad, they are simply people, like you and me.
You wanna’ know why the Trekies hated B5? Because it’s full of people, and that threatened their worldview. To massively paraphrase CS Lewis, the Trekian view of the future involves the abolition of the mankind of the present.
This is the first episode in any American SF show that didn’t simply show us what the future looked like, it also showed us how it worked. More modern shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly and (To a lesser extent) the Stargate franchise have all scooted in to make good use of this stuff, but make no mistake: It was Babylon 5 that first cracked that door!
It’s also pro-union. Whodathunkit?
*- “1000 years ago” being the mid-1200s.
Grrr. The average is ebbing down again. Not terrible, and there’s some more world building here that is worth watching, but that doesn’t disguise the overwhelming feeling of “Meh” that pervades this episode. Dammit, B5, be great! Stop screwing around!
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Vir’s cousin visit’s the station with said cousin’s significant other. They’re madly in love, but their families want them to marry different people for political and social reasons. The Centauri traditionally arrange marriages for their children in Hapsburg fashion. The kids – one of whom is Winnie from The Wonder Years – have run away and are looking for a safe place to get hitched and have a family, which is something of a scandal to conservative Centauri society. Londo is not terribly sympathetic and says that it’s good to learn how to live without love (Which makes a degree of sense as he just got badly burned a month back).
Londo, it seems, has three wives. Their pet names are “Famine,” “Pestilence,” and “Death.” “Just knowing they’re seventy five light years away waiting for me keeps me happily here on the station.” Eventually, however, he remembers something his father said in his sad final days, “My shoes are too tight, but it doesn’t matter because I’ve forgotten how to dance,” and he relents. He arranges a “Fosterage,” where the kids will be raised by a cousin of Londo’s, and when they’re of age, if they still want to get married for love – as scandalous as that is – they can.
MEANWHILE, there have been eight attacks on aliens on the station in the last two weeks. One of Delenn’s friends is stabbed after a poetry slam one night, and branded with that little man-woman symbol that Prince used back when Prince was known as the artist formerly known as Prince. Now he’s known as the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince, or simply “That washed up crazy guy” for short. I guess they’re fans. This was in the mid-’90s before he’d completely gone off the rails. But I digress…
Anyway, the spy dude from General Hospital shows up as an old flame of Susan, named “Malcolm.” He tries to rekindle things with Susan, and it looks like it’s working, but it pretty quickly turns out that he’s the new grand dragon of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, which has been orchestrating the alien lynchings. Sinclair, Garibaldi, and Susan embark on a generally pretty stupid and elaborate plan to trap Malcolm and his cronies when really all they needed to do was arrest ‘em, but the episode was running a bit short, I guess, and they needed to pad it out with a few scenes of Sinclair being an utter hole to the aliens. Eventually everyone gets bored with this, so they throw in a rather pointless and anemic action sequence, and that’s the end.
Butterfly knives will still be used in the 23rd century, presumably because they look totally badass when you swing ‘em open and closed, and not because they grow a lot of sugarcane on the station. That’s basically what they were designed for, and they’re not astoundingly useful for much apart from that. Just menial farming and the occasional hate crime. (“When Sugar is illegal, only outlaws will have butterfly knives,” or something like that.)
Earthforce is experimenting with “Blacklight Camouflage” suits, which are essentially personal cloaking devices. Is it just me, or does that seem a little too high tech for the humans in this show? Actually, I don’t think it is just me since we never see ‘em again, and they would have made life much easier on a couple occasions if they’d had ‘em.
Kosh is studying earth history for some reason, yet says “We take no interest in the affairs of others.” He’s extra enigmatic in this episode. Sinclair comments that Kosh’s viewer is quite unusual, but it really isn’t. I think the prop department or the FX department really dropped the ball on this one. Low budget show, not enough time. I’m not criticizing, just sayin’.
The Minbari equivalent of a hug: Stand face to face, put your right hand on the other person’s heart while they put their right hand on yours, then bow slowly until you touch foreheads.
We find out a bit about Ivonova: She and Malcolm were an item, but broke up around 2250 when she transferred to Io. She’s more interested in career than the whole lovey dovey thing, though we pretty much knew that without her telling us already, right? She’s openly disgusted when she finds out he’s an uber-racist. Actually, no, shouldn’t that be ‘Uber-Speciesist?”
The notion that there is Species Unrest on earth replacing Racial Unrest is pretty interesting. Though long a trope of literary science fiction, it’d never really been done on TV before, and of course the legacy of Trek is that everyone is a perfect person in the future with no room for hate.
One interesting aspect of this show is that Straczynski regularly wrote characters with ethnic names, but then cast them without any thought of race, thus you end up with Japanese people with English names, and WASPy folks with African names and so on. The idea is that racism is a dead issue, and that group identifications have drifted a lot in three hundred years.
I find myself wondering if it was contact with aliens that caused that? I mean, skin color is a fairly trivial distinction when compared to an alien with six prehensile penises like the…oh, but I’ve said too much already.
The French Chick gets one line, and Jack gets a walkby, but no dialog. I’m keeping my eye on Londo to see how the ‘manic/depressive’ theory holds. He’s pretty depressed in the garden, but he’s not particularly manic in this episode. Too close to call, really.
Sinclair and Ivonova have an interesting chat in the Observation Dome where Sinclair wonders for the first time exactly how Kosh got poisoned. I mean, he was in an encounter suit, so how did the poison get on his hand? He’d have to have stuck his hand out of the suit – assuming he has one – and why would he do that? Ivonova points out that the Vorlons are naturally secretive, and they don’t know how much of that Encounter Suit is necessary, and how much of it is just for show. Sinclair mentions that Ben Kyle never told Sinclair what he saw in there, and was transferred back to earth immediately afterwards to take his job with the President. A week after that, Lyta Alexander was transferred back as well. We never find out what happened to Laurel Takishima. Perhaps she shared an airlock with Ko’Dath? (I’m Joking. She’s not dead. JMS had apparently toyed with the idea of bringing the character back in some capacity at some point, and just kept quiet about it to avoid letting any pertinent plot-related cats out of the bag. Or so I’ve been told.)
A not-terribly-interesting questions that I’ll go into now because I’m OCD: I figure “The Gathering” happened seven to ten months before “Midnight on the Firing Line.” Franklin mentions in the 2nd episode that he saw Kyle while he was heading out and Kyle was heading in, which means the seven-to-ten can’t be correct. He must have left pretty recently, and Lyta must have literally left the day before the episode started. Basically there’s a minor sloppy continuity error here. Also, I may be misremembering it, but I think Garibaldi said that Lyta was transferred out six weeks after The Gathering. I’m sure someone will be able to correct me on this?
I called ‘em the Klan above, but the real name of the speciesist organization is “Homeguard.” The episode makes it very clear that they’ve infiltrated the government and the military.
Fresh Aire turns up again in this episode, and we get a really nice overhead shot of the garden at night.
G’kar is back to being a villain. He’s rabblerousing on the Zocalo, inciting an anti-human riot.
The main suspect – who was innocent – was a guy named Roberts, who had a butterfly knife like the one used to stab Delenn’s Friend (Hey, that rhymes! Almost!), but he claims it’s his own blood on it, and this turns out to be true. Uhm…why? What the heck was he doing? (“Ok, pay me $20 and I’ll let you stab me in the leg!”)
Fashion in B5 is supposed to be less spandex-and-fascist-space-pajamas than Trek or Space: 1999, and on the whole they do a pretty good job. The clothes look believable and derived from our own, at least for the humans. Malcolm, however, wears this goofy jacket where the upper halves of the lapels wrap around his throat and are fastened in the front. It’s just stupid.
The B5 Council meets for no particular reason other than they hadn’t used it in a while. We see Hyach, Drazi, Narn, Pak’Ma’Ra, and an unidentified alien that seems sort of like a proto-Brakiri. The “Abbai” are introduced in this episode, too: Hairless fishy-skinned humanoids with fins on their heads.
Homeguard’s entirely superfluous plan was to kill all four ambassadors on the station in a coordinated attack that would then touch off mass-assassinations of aliens back on Earth and Mars, (But evidently not on Earth’s extra-solar colonies). I say “Superfluous” because it’s thrown in at the last minute of the episode to ratchet up the tension, unsuccessfully since we’re already in the climax of the story and you kind of didn’t need it anyway. You’ve got racists rolling aliens in the streets, isn’t that peril enough? Why make it some big hokey “End of the world” plot when day-to-day horror is more than sufficient?
I really liked the concept and exploration of speciesism and speciesist-related violence. It’s not treated as an exact allegory for racism (Though it’s pretty close), which I also liked. The notion that aliens are moving to earth to live and work is very interesting, but apart from namechecking it here and there, it’s never really explored much beyond this episode. I would have liked to see more of that.
I mean, why are aliens moving to earth for jobs? Is it a Gastarbeiter situation, like in Germany after World War II? Do alien worlds just pay for suck, and it’s better to work in the US…I mean Earth? Are there some jobs that only aliens can do, or perhaps can do better than us? What would earth have made of the Green/Purple Drazi conflict a year later? Would the 23rd century version of Fox news have been going on about alien-on-alien violence?
The episode is more interesting than it is good, basically.
After last week’s high water mark for the series thus far, we once again find the tide is going out. But it doesn’t go out all the way, and it’s not so low that we can see the mud. Between the coda of this episode, and the coda of the previous one, the show displays a sudden and impressive penchant for the whole “sense of wonder and awe” thing that Star Trek had lost all interest in by this point.
On a personal note, during the first run of this series I was watching B5 mainly because there were only two other SF shows in those days: TNG and The X-Files. Someone said something in this episode that I thought contradicted something someone said in a previous one, so I hauled out a pencil and paper (Remember those? How quaint!) and started scribbling down notes from the previous episodes and this one, and I realized five sheets of paper later that, to my surprise, this show had done more consistent world building in six episodes than TNG had done in the previous six years.
I know, I know, it sounds like I’m bashing Trek. I’m really not, though: I loved TOS, I loved TNG: I always watched it, and for most of its run I really really liked it. Somewhere around season five, though, I found myself drifting away for whatever reason. I didn’t understand why, but when B5 hit it basically filled all kinds of needs that I hadn’t realized I’d had before.
Which is good, because a lot of these early episodes are deadly boring, and without that angle I doubt I would have made it through ‘em.
PLAY BY PLAY
A handsome black man is on the run from some fighters. His ship jumps away, and destroys the fighters in the process. He goes to Babylon 5, where it quickly turns out he’s saddled with the unfortunate name “Jason Ironheart.” Seriously: does that sound like a Masters of the Universe name, or what? “Oh, Suzie’s in her bedroom making her brother’s Ironheart action figure and Barbie make out…”
Anyway, he’s on the run from Psicorps, who experimented on him, thereby changing him from a fairly run-of-the-mill Telepath into a super-powerful Telekinetic. Ostensibly he’s on B5 to say goodbye to Talia, but in reality it’s just because the script said he had to be there. It makes no particular sense otherwise, nor is there any particularly logical reason for him to need to say goodbye to Talia in the first place, as opposed to the zillion other people in his life. This is somewhat less annoying than it probably would be otherwise, because Ironheart* realizes this was a mistake almost as soon as he gets there. That takes some of the curse off of it.
Two Psicops – basically the police force/internal affairs department for the Psicorps – turn up trying to capture him and take him back home for “Help,” but it’s pretty clear that means dissection. Because they’re wearing SS uniforms, and so they have to be evil, y’see. After several conversations with Talia – the two of them were lovers once upon a time, apparently back when he was her teacher at the Psicorps academy (Uhm…ick?) – but neither of them really convey the kind of closeness that would justify this level of risk on his part. Anyway, Ironheart has a built-in failsafe code: Broadcast it to him telepathically and he’ll shut down. The psicops are hoping to use this against him, and they jump the guy when Sinclair tries to help him off the station. Sinclair punches the lead Psicop in the face, knocking him out, but the other one keeps trying to send the code. Ironheart disintegrates her using his mind.
He then apotheosizes into one of those annoying Star Trek energy-based god-like super evolved entities that are always so annoyingly smug. He gives Talia a parting gift: Telekinesis, and then says “Goodbye Commander, I’ll see you again in a million years.”
After the fact, Sinclair manages to blackmail the surviving Psicop into agreeing to a series of lies that will cover up the cop’s own wrongdoing, as well as Talia’s complicit, and Sinclair’s open defiance of orders. He reluctantly goes along with it, and says “Be seeing you,” as he heads out.
MEANWHILE, IN THE VASTLY MORE INTERESTING SUBPLOT, the commander’s girlfriend, Catherine Sakai, is heading out to survey a newly-discovered world called “Sigman 957.” It’s in a section of space that the Narn occasionally claim to own, but G’kar refuses to let her go. He warns her that it’s a very unsafe section of space, but we don’t believe him because he’s an evil bastard, after all, right? She goes anyway. No sooner is she off the station than G’kar calls homeworld and tells them to send some well-armed fighters to Sigma 957, and you just know he’s going to have her killed to cover something up, right? Because he’s a bastard and all.
Immediately upon arrival, Catherine has her ship completely incapacitated by the appearance of some great big weird glowing boojums dealie that appears, then zips away. Trapped in a decaying orbit and waiting to die, some Narn fighters show up, and tow her to safety.
Back on the station, she confronts G’kar as to why he warned her and why he saved her. He says that her death would have caused Sinclair considerable anguish for no good reason. If it would further G’kar’s purposes to have the Commander upset, sure, but why waste it on something like this?
Catherine asks G’kar what the heck that thing was that knocked out her ship. He goes over to a booth selling flowers on the Zocalo and points to a bug on a flower:
G’kar: “What is this?”
Catherine: “An ant.”
Catherine: “So much gets shipped up from Earth on commercial transports, it’s hard to keep them out.”
G’kar: “I have just picked it up on the tip of my glove. If I put it down again, and it asks another ant, ‘What was that?,’ how would it explain? There are things in the universe billions of years older than either of our races. They are vast, timeless. And if they are aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants. We have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us. We know. We’ve tried. And we’ve learned we can either stay out from underfoot, or be stepped on.”
Catherine: “That’s it? That’s all you know?”
G’kar: “Yes. They are a mystery, and I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe; that we have not yet explained everything. Whatever they are, Ms. Sakai, they walk near Sigma 957. They must walk there alone.”
Once again, the “A” plot feels like a retooled ‘80s Outer Limits plot. It’s slow, and not nearly as dramatic as it seems to feel it is. Granted, the camera shakes about a bit, and some crap drops from the ceiling of the studio, but basically it’s just your standard ‘guy on the run who turns out to be a god’ plot. Yawn. In fact, this is all just a ‘makework’ plot to introduce a number of concepts, plot elements, and characters crucial to the show:
We’ve heard of the Psicorps previously, of course, and we know that membership is basically mandatory if you’re a telepath. We’ve assumed they’re benevolent, if a bit unyielding and heartless. This episode introduces the idea that they flat-out can’t be trusted. Ironheart says that they were intended to be controlled by the government, but “Telepaths make the best blackmailers,” and increasingly the Psicorps is the one pulling the strings. We’re also told that their research department is interested in developing telekinesis for its use in black ops, particularly assassination. (“Pinch an artery in someone’s brain and they have a stroke, with no weapons, no poison, no fingerprints, no evidence that can ever be traced back to the corps.”) We’re also told that the Psicops are the duly-appointed shepherds for this flock, and “having greater responsibility, we have somewhat more latitude in interpretation of the rules.”
“The Rules” in general mean no unauthorized scans, no use of telepathy to communicate with non-telepaths, no deep scans of people’s minds, no access to the casino, ever, and (Apparently) the wearing of gloves and a Psi Corps badge at all times in public so you can be easily identified.
All that sets the stage for things that are to come, but the most lingering legacy of this episode is the introduction of Psicop Alfred Bester. He’s a guy without mercy, or perhaps he’s a guy who’s mercy is so specifically circumscribed that he’s much more evil than he appears. Or maybe he *is* every bit as evil as he appears. It’s hard to say. He’s definitely interesting, however, and we’ll be seeing him again.
We’re told that one in thousand people are Telepaths, and that one in ten thousand are telekinetic, and that “Half of them are clinically insane.” All human telekinetics to date have been “unstable,” so while the abilities exist, they’re utterly useless.
The fighter squadron we saw at the start of the episode is called “Black Omega.” They bear Psicorps logos, and they pointedly do *not* identify themselves as part of Earth force (That is, they’re not military.)
A company called “Universal Terraform” was interested in Sigma 957. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of habitable-and-vacant worlds in the B5verse. Is Terraforming really all that lucrative? Granted, they didn’t actually seem interested in terraforming this planet, just the minerals, but still…
“Jack” is introduced in this episode. He’s the guard talking with Bester in the arrival lounge. He seems a minor character – and he is – but keep your eyes open for him. The French Chick gets her obligatory one line. (I should mention that I’m not calling her that to be sexist. Were she a guy, I’d call her “The French Dude.” She’s just clearly French, and is never given a name)
We get another elevator gag – the second one – with Talia and Garibaldi pretty much openly stalking her. She reads his mind, and elbows him.
Talia tells us that Telepathy is kind of like being in an apartment and hearing voices through the walls, though not clearly enough to make sense of them unless you concentrate. She also says that when two telepaths knock boots they essentially merge into one soul for a moment, and that’s the only time in their lives when they don’t hear the voices. The actual scene where she relates all this is pretty brilliantly done: It’s shot aboard the central shuttle/tram thing that runs through the axis of the station, and we can see the vast central garden of the station stretching impressively out below them as they zoom by. As Talia talks about the sexy stuff, they zip into a tunnel, blocking out the background so we only concentrate on her. It’s a neat trick, well shot, but it begs the question “Why don’t they do more stuff like this?” More to the point, why don’t they do more filming in the central garden? That’s really exotic! And pretty!
Andrea Thomson is pretty enough, slinky enough, sexy enough, she’s got good hair and cheekbones and a sultry voice, and she’s an adequate enough actress, but there’s just something about her as Talia that’s always put me off. Yeah, yeah, I get the Dickensian name aspect of it: she’s chilly, but it’s beyond that. There’s just something unlikeable there, and I don’t know what it is. Anyone else get that vibe?
Deep telepathic scans not only hurt, but they’re traumatic. So much so that Susan gives Talia a glass of water to calm down afterwards, the first act of kindness we’ve seen from her. Susan, by the way, is openly insubordinate while in the room with the Psicops, and very aggressively sarcastic as well. This is a new side of her.
A new side of G’kar as well. After all this time as an adversary, we got that great window into his soul last week, and a surprising insight into his sense of awe and wonder this week. He’s still a bastard, but he’s not a capricious bastard. He’s only too glad to sacrifice his pawns, but he won’t do it without a reason. Also, he’s effortlessly poetic and articulate. Good qualities in an angry lizard, don’t you think?
Speaking of poetic, “You can not harm one who has dreamed a dream like mine.”
When the stationstarts shaking, the Psicops seem not at all surprised, and say “Mindquake,” as if this kind of thing has happened to them before a lot. So has it? I mean, they’ve got a name for it and all. How have they come across this phenomenon before?
Talia is a level P-5 telepath. P-10s are required to be instructors. Level P-12 is required to be a Psicop. It’s unknown how high the scale goes up. It’s also unclear what Talia’s level is now that she’s a Telekinetic.
Catherine’s ship is called the “Skydancer.” It appears to be a standard non-atmospheric human shuttle like we’ve seen scads of on the show, tricked out with extra fuel tanks and a luggage rack on the bottom.
The spotlights are in this episode.
Sinclair doesn’t entirely believe the things Ironheart told him, given that the guy was frazzled and loopy and just basically a mess. Was it the truth, or just paranoid delusion? He’s skeptical, but keeping an eye open.
The Earth Alliance communicates by “Tachyon Transmissions.” Tachyons are hypothetical particles that travel faster than light, which is how B5 can talk to ships and planets far away with no apparent time lag.
* “Be seeing you.” This turns up a few more times to indicate offscreen connections between some very bad people.
* “A million years.” It’s unclear if Ironheart is talking about humanity as a whole, or Sinclair personally. Either is possible, frankly. We heard Sinclair talking about The Sun Going Out In A Million Years in his interview a few eps back, and we’ll here more of that kind of thing in the future. (The sun’s projected life is several billion more years). Rather than an arbitrary big number, “A million years” seems to specifically denote that something big happens in the year 1,002,258 AD. You know, give or take six months either way. We eventually find out *what,* but we don’t know why, nor what (if any) part Ironheart played in it.
BEHIND THE SCENES
One last note: I’ve always heard that the part of Bester was actually written specifically for Patrick MacGoohan, the guy who played “Number Six” on The Prisoner back in the ‘60s. He had a heart attack during preproduction, however, Walter Koenig stepped in literally at the eleventh hour to fill the role as a personal favor. Thus, when Bester says “Be seeing you” at the end of the ep, and gives the little village salute, it was intended as an in joke. I have been informed that this is incorrect. The actual facts have been explained to me a couple times, but somehow I manage to keep misunderstanding them and misrelating them, so I’m just going to stop here and say “MacGoohan was never supposed to play Bester.” Any more than that will get me in trouble. I’m not a bright man.
Koenig decided on the spur of the moment to play Bester with a useless left hand. The reasons for this are never referred to in the show, though Gregory Keys came up with an explanation for it in his “Psicorps” novels. The ultimate resolution to the issue of Bester’s hand – which we’ll eventually get to – actually kind of put a lump in my throat.
* – Seriously, that never stops being goofy.
I’ve discovered a pretty surprising way to bore myself to sleep. As you know if you know me at all, I’m obsessed with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. As you may not know, I’ve actually *FINALLY* outgrown that, owing to a gap of about 10 years between viewing episodes, and the realization that they’re boring as fuck. (Not all bad, mind you, and a couple are awesome, but on the whole: Boring as fuck.)