Monday, January 21, 2019

What Do You Want?: Babylon 5 1.13, "Signs and Portents"

Previously, on Babylon 5...

Tonight, on an exciting new episode: when the raiders begin causing worse problems than normal, Londo's delivery of a priceless Centauri artifact to its intended recipient becomes exponentially more difficult.  Meanwhile, a mysterious visitor comes to the station seeking the answer to an important question.


(season 1, episode 13)
airdate: May 18, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Janet Greek

You really want to know what I want?  You really want to know the truth?  
I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy.  I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again and command the stars!  I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power; I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment, afraid to look back or to look forward.  I want us to be what we used to be!  I want... 
I want it all back, the way that it was!  
Does that answer your question?

This monologue is delivered by Londo Mollari, and it is delivered to a mysterious man who has come aboard the station to ask him a simple question: what do you want?

In that moment, the story of Babylon 5 changes forever, though it may not be immediately apparent to those watching the series for the first time.  It certainly isn't apparent to those fictional characters who are living it.

In revisiting the episode for the first time in some fifteen years, I find my own question springing forth: does this work?

The answer is murkier.  I think it's a little bit of a no mixed with a little bit of a yes, which blends together into a "depends on your mood."  I'm a little surprised to find myself rendering THAT as the verdict; traditionally, this has been a big episode for me.  It's more important to the overall story than it is a satisfying episode in and of itself, granted; but that's fine, because we're only a bit more than halfway through the introductory season of a five-season series that truly was intended to function a bit like a novel.  We're still very much in the getting-to-know-you phase of the game, so an episode that serves as the introduction of a new plot element isn't a problematic idea.

To be clear, I do still like the episode; it's got virtues.  It's also got most of the same problems I've been whinging about for a while now.  Some of them won't go away for a while; some of them will never go away.  I should probably stop mentioning them.

I had not counted on finding myself resisting the big concept for this episode, however.  That's a new thing.  I'm going to be unable to talk about it without going into spoiler mode, so if you were merely curious as to how I felt about this episode overall, here's what I've got for you:

Bryant's rating:  *** 1/2 / *****

Beyond that, I'm not much interested in non-spoilery talk, so if you're averse to getting spoiled, now's the time for you to jump ship.

Monday, January 14, 2019

As Serious as a Rip in a Spacesuit: Babylon 5 1.12, "By Any Means Necessary"

Previously on Babylon 5...

Tonight, on an all-new episode: when a mechanical failure in a cargo bay turns deadly for one of the workers, Sinclair finds himself having to deal with an illegal labor strike.

(season 1, episode 12)
airdate:  May 11, 1994
written by:  Kathryn M. Drennan
directed by:  Jim Johnston

I remembered this as being a tedious episode, to the extent I remembered it at all.  All of the specifics of it had floated right out of my brain, and what was left in their place was an image of me making a disapproving face.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I ended up enjoying the episode quite a bit!

Don't misunderstand me, though.  This is a problematic episode in many, many ways.  And I'm sure we'll talk about that.  But this is one of the first episodes where most of the problematic elements really don't bother me: the fact is that I just plain like this episode, despite its deficiencies.

One of its problems is also perhaps one of its virtues: an ambitious plotline involving the overworked spacedock crew, a team of government contractees who are saddled with shoddy equipment, overlong hours, inadequate pay, and a shrinking budget.  In no way is the production capacity of Babylon 5 well suited for something this big.  Scratch "well suited," actually; it's not even suited.  So what we get are scenes of a couple of dozen extras pretending to be spacedock-workers, standing around on one corner of a redressed hallway set hollering a lot.  It doesn't wash; their union delegate looks like a Barbie doll who's never touched a piece of equipment -- no jokes, please -- in her life.  The government "negotiator" -- obviously a union-busting fascist -- who comes in to deal with them is so cartoonish he may as well have been played by Yosemite Sam.

And yet...

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

More Trouble Than a Toilet Full of Snakes: Babylon 5 1.11: "Survivors"

Tonight, on an all-new episode: Garibaldi is accused of sabotaging a docking bay in what may prove to be an assassination attempt on the life of Earth's President.
(season 1, episode 11)
airdate:  May 4, 1994
written by:  Marc Scott Zicree
directed by:  Jim Johnston
This episode is a standalone tale on the face of things, involving Garibaldi's efforts to clear his name in a wrong-man scenario resulting from an explosion in one of the Cobra launch bays.  This happens several days before a visit from Earth's President, which means the equivalent of the Secret Service gets involved in the investigation.  One problem with that: the head of the President's security force is a young woman with whom Garibaldi shares a dark past.  She's predisposed to think the worst of him, and think the worst of him she does.
This leads to some good stuff, and to some bad stuff, but (as with "Believers" last week) I think the balance is more toward the good than the bad and the end result is one of the best episodes yet.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

There Are More Important Things in Life Than the Next Breath: Babylon 5 1.10, ''Believers''

Tonight, on an all-new episode: Dr. Franklin's oath to do no harm comes into conflict with a family of aliens who refuse to allow him to operate on their son.
(season 1, episode 10)
airdate:  April 27, 1994
written by:  David Gerrold
directed by:  Richard Compton
Here's an episode that was designed by all involved to be a button-pusher.  In some ways, it's a swing-for-the-fences attempt to both replicate and reject (by furthering and intensifying) the sort of ethical-conundrum episodes that had been the occasional forte of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Heck, Straczynski even assigned the episode to David "The Trouble With Tribbles" Gerrold!
The setup: a family from an alien race brings their ill son aboard the station to see Dr. Franklin, whose skill with operating on a plethora of races has spread far and wide.  Their child has a blockage in his airway and is slowly drowning on his own fluids.  Franklin examines him, determines that indeed yes, it is quite serious, but fixable with surgery.  With what now...? ask the parents (I'm paraphrasing).  You're going to ... cut into him?!?
That's a deal-breaker.  Their religion believes that the region where the blockage is -- an air bladder of sorts -- houses the spirit.  To cut into it would be to deprive the boy of his soul, and of his life eternal.  This is a fate worse than mere death; it's a complete non-starter.
Franklin, being the man of science he is, is completely aghast at this, and asks Sinclair to step in and (for the boy's own good) order the surgery anyways.  Sinclair then has to wrestle with the ethical and political implications of such a move; it could theoretically end the station's neutrality.  But it might also be the right thing to do; or the complete wrong thing to do.  It's kind of a pickle.

Friday, January 4, 2019

In Defense of "Star Trek: The Next Generation"

It's unplanned-post time.
Last night I watched this movie:
which, if you were unaware, is an hour-long documentary directed by William Shatner in which he interviews various people associated with the first three seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The aim of the film: to tell the tale of the titular chaos that greeted the launch of the second iteration of Star Trek on television.  (Third, if you count the animated series.)
It's a very entertaining documentary.  Shatner is a gifted interviewer; he gets a lot of great stuff from his interviewees, some of which is so good and so open that I'm a little shocked CBS (and/or Paramount) permitted the documentary to be released.  The cast members mentioned on the cover are only a scant part of the story; the real gems come from interviewees like John Pike (who was the then-head of Paramount's television division), Maurice Hurley, Tracy Tormé, Susan Sackett, D.C. Fontana, David Gerrold, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and so forth.
It'd be well worth my time to go through it scene by scene and give you my thoughts, but that's a thing time isn't going to permit.
However, I did find my brain a-blazing to some degree once it was done, and I want to put some of those thoughts down.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

You Will Fall Upon One Another Like Wolves: Babylon 5 1.09, ''Deathwalker''

Previously, on Babylon 5...

Tonight, on an all-new episode: an alien wanted for war crimes makes Earth an offer it can't refuse, and Sinclair has to figure out how to keep the alien ambassadors from tearing the station apart.

(season 1, episode 9)
airdate:  April 20, 1994
written by:  Larry DiTillio
directed by:  Bruce Seth Green

It's a fairly typical mid-first-season episode in that it has some quality scenes and ideas sandwiched between occasional moments of gracelessness in the production.  But I'd argue that this episode, despite its flaws, lurches capably in the right direction.

Here's what it's about, more or less: a greatly wanted war criminal named Jha'dur -- known colloquially as "Deathwalker" for no evident reason -- comes aboard the station.  She is recognized, attacked, and brutally beaten.  After she recovers, Sinclair learns that there's a reason why she is still seemingly in her prime despite having been in hiding for thirty years: she has invented a "universal anti-agapic" serum.  That is, she has found an immortality drug.  She's planning to give it to Earth, and Sinclair has orders to send her right on her way to there, but when the ambassadors who represent the League of Nonaligned Worlds -- many of whose people were ravaged by Deathwalker and her race -- find out about it, they demand that she be tried there on the station for "crimes against sentience."  However, the B5 advisory council -- composed of Eath, the Vorlons, the Centauri, the Narn, and the Minbari -- collectively vote against it, which raises tensions to a fever pitch.

Meanwhile, Talia is hired by Kosh to help with some bizarre negotiations.

Let's talk about the problematic aspects of the episode.  As is often the case, they mostly consist of iffy production/direction/performance decisions.  Such as these:

Saturday, December 15, 2018

I Know Who You Are: Babylon 5 1.08, "And the Sky Full of Stars"

Previously on Babylon 5...
Tonight, on an all-new episode: Sinclair is kidnapped by black-ops agents who want to know what happened to him at the Battle of the Line.
"And the Sky Full of Stars" is sometimes cited as being the first great episode of Babylon 5.  I can't go that far, personally; it's not even quite my favorite episode of the series to that point (that remains "The Gathering," warts and all).

But it's solid enough, I suppose; you wouldn't be totally embarrassed for a friend to catch you watching it.

(season 1, episode 8)
airdate:  March 16, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Janet Greek

This is a notable episode primarily for the way in which it advances the ongoing subplot related to Sinclair's missing time incident from the Battle of the Line.  The questions are by no means all answered here -- in fact, in the time-honored tradition of serialized stories, two new questions are introduced for every answer that is given -- but there's no question that big leaps forward are taken.

Friday, December 14, 2018

My Shoes Are Too Tight: Babylon 5 1.07, "The War Prayer"

"We cannot turn our back on tradition."
"Oh, damn tradition!  Kiron may die because our glorious tradition values wealth and power over love!"
" 'My shoes are too tight.' "
"Excuse me...?"
"Something my father said.  He was old -- very old -- at the time.  I went into his room and he was sitting alone in the dark, crying.  So I asked him what was wrong, and he said, 'My shoes are too tight.  But it doesn't matter, because I have forgotten how to dance.' I never understood what that meant until now.  My shoes are too tight ... and I have forgotten how to dance."
Previously on Babylon 5...
Tonight, on an all-new episode: anti-alien violence perpetrated by a group of Earth-first isolationists causes big problems for Sinclair and Ivanova.
If you read that above exchange of dialogue (which is between Londo and Vir) and thought, "Huh, that sounds kind of lame," know ye that you are not alone.  It is lame; it surely is.
It's been kind of a rough ride so far, revisiting this series.  I've enjoyed some of it (I still like "The Gathering" and "Midnight on the Firing Line" despite their apparent flaws, and "Mind War"is solid, too), but much of it borders on the inept.  Even during the good episodes, I've found it necessary at times to view it the way I'd view a middle-school production of Cabaret: with an upfront acknowledgment that it was going to be crap, and a conscious effort to grade on a steep curve.
It gets better.  Never perfect; the production limitations are always there.  But it does get better.
Not this week, though.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My Mind Had Been A Seed: Babylon 5 1.06, "Mind War" day I woke up and I could see everything.  It was as if my mind had been a seed for all of those years and then suddenly it blossomed.
Previously on Babylon 5...
Tonight, on an all-new episode: a fugitive from Psi Corps shows up on the station, with pursuers in hot pursuit!
(season 1, episode 6)
airdate:  March 2, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Bruce Seth Green
A peek behind the scenes into the inner workings of Where No Blog Has Gone Before.  I've mentioned this before: I'm rewatching Babylon 5 in tandem with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  Specifically, I'm rewatching DS9 along with the podcast Mission Log, which is covering an episode of that show per week.  I made myself a list of when the episodes of both shows aired, and am going in that order.
Mostly, this means one episode of Babylon 5 per week.  However, there were times when either it or Deep Space Nine would go on hiatus, and the other would continue to air episodes.  But Mission Log, naturally, is not taking weeks-long breaks just because DS9 did way back in the day; that'd be dumb.  
I mention it because every so often, along'll come a week like this one, where I'm dealing with three episodes of Babylon 5 that aired during the off weeks between two episodes of Deep Space Nine.  At this point, I've either got to:
(A)  Put on my game face, send my two-minute offense out onto the field, and just get it the fuck done;
(B)  abandon the entire concept; or
(C)  bend the concept and risk getting myself unspeakably behind.  You know, like I am on Star Trek TOS.  (We'll be getting back to that in January, though; believe THAT shit.)
I'm going for option A.  And if the year-end crush at work doesn't thwart me, I might actually be able to get all three done in timely fashion

Thursday, December 6, 2018

I Am Become a Name: Babylon 5 1.05, "The Parliament of Dreams"

Previously on Babylon 5...
Tonight, on an all-new episode: a week-long religious festival onboard the station spells danger for one of the ambassadors!
Here we are again, dredging through the swampy early episodes of Babylon 5 in the hopes of finding submerged treasure of some sort.
This week:
(season 1, episode 5)
airdate:  February 23, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Jim Johnston
No point in burying the lede: this is a rather terrible episode.  It's got its moments; but mostly, this is poorly-produced dreck.
I feel bad for saying that.  After all, I am a fan of the series.  And, heck, I personally don't mind this episode all that much; it's similar to the past handful in that regard.  It's also similar to them in that the idea of sitting an uninitiated viewer down and showing this to them makes my skin crawl.  It's yet another episode where the only real way to enjoy it might be to pretend you're watching the more handsomely produced reboot which has yet to actually happen.
Anyways, the plot of this episode is that Earth Central has come up with a corker of an idea: they've sponsored a week-long celebration of religious expression wherein the various races comprising Babylon 5 are encouraged to hold ceremonies showcasing the dominant systems of faith on their homeworlds.  What could go wrong?
Actually, as far as that side of the plot goes, nothing much does go wrong.  In and of itself, this is kind of a charming idea.  Interwoven with the several ceremonies we see are two subplots: Ambassador G'Kar attempts to thwart an assassination attempt sponsored by an old rival who has just died; and Jeff strikes up a renewed romance with an old flame who visits the station on business.
All of this is fine on paper.  But (and take a shot if you've heard me say this before) boy is the staging problematic.  I mean, look; by now, I guess we know that Babylon 5 appears to be filmed inside a shanty somebody built in one corner of an abandoned fairgrounds near the hobo village and the meth-cook kiosks.  What's worse, the primary construction materials they seem to have had at their disposal were cardboard and roach shells.  Many of the costume designs seem perhaps to be sketched by work-release interns whose buying habits consisted of the Goodwill closest to the United Nations building.  Compounding these issues is the problem of creator/screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski steadfastly refusing to believe any of that was either an issue or a problem, and opting to press full steam ahead and even ramp up his ambitions with each passing episode.
The end result is a combined feeling of impressed dismay; you can't believe anyone would try this series on the budget available to them, but you kind of have to applaud their willingness to try.
And my steadfast belief is that somewhere down the line -- later this season at some point, I'd argue, though not all would agree with me on that count -- it begins to actually pay off.  The production ability to meet the ambitions never quite manifests fully, but the story does eventually become compelling enough that many of the hey-but-this-is-shite realities recede into ... not nothingness by a long shot, but into what might safely be called the distance.
It's tough getting there, though.  Truly.  Don't think I don't know it.  A great deal of "The Parliament of Dreams" makes me cringe.  Let's run through some of that now.