Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Ignore the Propaganda: Babylon 5, "Midnight on the Firing Line" (season 1, episode 1)

Well, here we are, finally: the first hour-long episode of Babylon 5, "Midnight on the Firing Line."  The true start of the first season ("The Gathering" was a pilot episode/movie), the episode aired the same week the second-season Deep Space Nine episode "Armageddon Game" did.  
I'm also -- and you've likely heard this from me before, so apologies for the reruns -- in the midst of a DS9 rewatch (concurrent with the podcast Mission Log, which is covering it an episode per week), so I'll probably offer occasional updates as to where these episodes stand in relation to DS9.  Otherwise, I don't anticipate a whole heck of a lot of comparison between the two shows.  A comment here and there might helpful to establish a baseline between them, but otherwise, I don't see me being very interested in comparison.  Beyond the history of the shows' development processes, which I covered in the post about "The Gathering," I think it does neither series any favors to harp on that stuff.
So we shan't!
That said, let's dive in on the first season's first episode, albeit with a couple of things kept in mind: that these episodes were made well after "The Gathering" and therefore do have significant differences in tone, appearance, casting, and other aspects.  To some extent, "Midnight on the Firing Line" is a different animal than "The Gathering."
Let's explore that a bit, eh?
We begin at:

In this brief opening scene, one of the biggest problems with Babylon 5 is fully on display: this scene looks as if it was filmed inside a spacious broom closet, with actors whose minimal skills were not fully up to the task of the two-takes-maximum filming policy and whose costumes/makeup/hair design appear to have been done under heavy constraints of both time and budget.
In other words, it looks cheap, and it feels cheap.  This was the case in 1994 when it first aired, and a reassessment some twenty-four years later with degraded video quality makes it only worse.
I'm guessing we'll talk about this from time; it's going to likely be unavoidable (and it'll be equally unavoidable to keep from mentioning how comparatively better the well-funded Deep Space Nine looked/looks).
That said, if that's how you focus your attentions when watching Babylon 5, you're probably doing it wrong.  I'd humbly suggest that if you cannot get past the production realities of the show, it may simply not be a show for you.  Some of that shores up by the time the second season arrives; but only some of it.  And because of that, it does kind of require patience and tolerance on the part of viewers; if one is unwilling to grant that type of lenience, I totally get it.
Me?  I think the effort is rewarded, and amply.  But, even so, I do think it is important to remember that not everyone can go there.  I'm sympathetic.

I've been struggling somewhat to decide what to actually do with these posts.  A lot of my recent blogging has felt sloppy and lazy to me, consisting largely of unstructured nattering.  I aspire to more than that; or, at least, I aspire to aspire to more than that.
But I also tend to want NOT to fret over it.  Look, man; this is just fun.  So that's really the primary objective: F-U-N, fun.  That means doing whatever feels like it's worth the doin'.
And so, I present to you: screencaps with relevant comments.
"Do you know what your problem is, Mr. Garibaldi?  You're not a people-person."
This scene with Londo and Garibaldi is pretty damn clunky.  It's an exposition dump wherein Garibaldi relates to Londo the history of Earth's dealings with the Centauri.  It's bad writing.  It's not necessarily bad television-series writing, though; especially for 1994 television.  Is it clunky for world-building exposition to be dropped into a scene between two series regulars whose characters would have ZERO need to say these things to one another?  Yeah, sure; clunky as hell.  
So what?  It gets the job done.  And the exposition is delivered in such a way as to be well within the bounds of simultaneously helping to explain who these characters are and how they behave.  Neither Peter Jurasik (Londo) nor Jerry Doyle (Garibaldi) are especially good here; but they do also feel like the same characters we'd (spoiler alert!) still be seeing in later seasons, so there's that.  And that is by no means a given on television shows, especially from this era.
In other words, it's a clunky scene, but also an effective one.  And then this happens:
That's Stephen Furst playing Vir, Londo's diplomatic "staff."  
Furst was odd casting.  And to this day, I'm on the fence as to whether or not I actually like Vir as a character and/or like Furst in the role.  I find him to be a bit off-putting, to be honest.  But it's intentional; or, if it isn't, it's eventually well taken advantage of.  
Vir, I think, is intended to be a bumbling but good-hearted fellow, one whose innocence and optimism counterbalances Londo's callousness and cynicism.  In that sense, Furst's casting probably does work quite well.
Were the vampire teeth necessary?  I mean, you've already got the Centauri hairstyles serving as a cue for viewers to change channels by the thousands; did they really need to add fucking vampire teeth to the package as well?
Moving on, let's check out the voiceover (delivered by Michael O'Hare as Commander Sinclair) from the opening credits:
It was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind, ten years after the Earth/Minbari War.  The Babylon Project was a dream given form: its goal to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully.  It's a port of call; home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers.  Humans and aliens, wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night.  It can be a dangerous place, but it's our last, best hope for peace.  This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations.  The year is 2258; the name of the place is Babylon 5.
Gotta let viewers in 1994 know what your show is about, and as far as that sort of thing goes, I like this fine.  It's accompanied by an excellent musical theme by Christopher Franke, who joined the show for the first season and would remain onboard for the rest of its duration.  Franke's contributions cannot be overstated easily; I don't hate the work that the original composer, Stewart Copeland, did on "The Gathering," but Franke's style enhances things considerably and immediately.  

(season 1, episode 1)
airdate:  January 26, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Richard Compton 

Harlan Ellison's name being attached got the series a fair amount of attention, some (most?) of it resulting in stoking further the flames of B5-versus-Trek discord.  Ellison was always happy to sling mud in Trek's direction, of course, the scamp.  His actual involvement in Babylon 5 was somewhat limited, but he pitched in ideas here and there.

Get used to seeing that credit.  Straczynski -- JMS, as we'll often call him -- wrote the teleplay for 92 of the 110 episodes of Babylon 5, an astonishing statistic.  He also wrote the pilot movie AND the five movies which were produced during or after season five, not to mention ten of the thirteen episodes of the spinoff series, Crusade.  To a very real extent, the universe of Babylon 5 is as near to being a one-man story as can be.  Maybe there are other similarly long-running shows with as singular an authorial voice; if so, I know only of Mad Men as being comparable to Babylon 5 in that regard.  If you know of others, let me know!

Compton returns; he'd also directed "The Gathering."  Not especially well, in my opinion, especially as regards the performances; and I find many of the performances in this first proper episode to be similarly lacking.

Note the radically different look for Delenn, as played by Mira Furlan.  I approve of it, for the most part; but I also admired the pilot's attempt to make the Minbari look androgynous and mysterious.  Either way, this is the Minbari we will have for quite some time to come.  I run hot and cold on whether I like the exo-skull; what biological/evolutionary purpose would it serve to only cover half of the head?  But whatever; this is sci-fi teevee, and I might ask questions like that, but rare is the occasion on which I actually get bothered by it.  This is not one.

Michael O'Hare has a more military haircut in this episode than in "The Gathering."  He's also ... actually pretty good in this episode?!?  I had not remembered that.  He was, at times, borderline incompetent in "The Gathering."  But here, I think he's just fine.  I dig Sinclair, man; I really do.

"I'm in the middle of fifteen things, all of them annoying."

Among the major changes for the first season: a new Executive Officer, Susan Ivanova.  She's played by Claudia Christian, who feels distinctly uncomfortable throughout much of the episode.  She's better than Tamlyn Tomita was playing Laurel Takashima, the previous XO.  But I can't say much more for her than that, and she's not helped a bit by Straczynski's dialogue, which seems to have been designed to be spoken in a Russian accent.  It's marked by weird non-contracted words ("I do not know" instead of "I don't know"), all of which sound forced and unnatural in Ivanova's mouth in the way I associate with an indication that someone is not fully adept at speaking the English language.
And, to be clear, I am not blaming Christian for this.  Unless she was supposed to be speaking with a Russian accent, in which case it is the single worst accent of any type ever delivered by any actor in any medium.

Another major cast shakeup: Patricia Tallman as Lyta Alexander was out as the station's Psi Corps representative telepath, and Andrea Thompson was in as Talia Winters.  Thompson isn't great here, but we'll have many better episodes for actor and character alike down the line.
"Ignore the propaganda; focus on what you see."

"Would you like some spoo?  It's quite fresh this week."  Man, it cracks me up every time they mention spoo.
The episode is, on the surface, primarily about a Narn attack on / invasion of a Centauri agricultural station.  Which is, I think, actually an entire planet; specifically, a planet that belonged to the Narn before the Centauri invaded and occupied it a century ago.
"We should have wiped out your kind when we had the chance," spits Londo at G'Kar once it becomes clear it is the Narn who have attacked the Centauri station.
"What happened?" retorts G'Kar.  "Run out of small children to butcher?"
In the pilot movie, G'Kar was presented as being THE villain of the piece, and that doesn't much change here.  That said, Londo himself -- though sympathetic in some ways -- also comes off as a bit of a baddie.  In this scene, he does express what seems to be an honest regret over his people not having committed literal genocide.  That's kind of reprehensible even if he didn't mean it.  If he did mean it...?  Yikes.  All of a sudden G'Kar doesn't seem quite so bad.  Except for the fact that he obviously IS.
To say the least, we'll see more of this.  It's one of the major underpinnings of the series.

Later, in a scene in which Londo is speaking to Sinclair, the Centauri ambassador drops another major plot element on us: the fact that the Centauri have prophetic dreams in which they see their own deaths (with the exact circumstances sometimes clear and sometimes not).  Londo reveals to Sinclair that the first time he saw G'Kar, he recognized the Narn from a dream: one in which Londo was dying with his hands wrapped around the other man's throat.  It won't happen for another twenty years, according to Londo; but it will happen.

"They are alone.  They are a dying people.  We should let them pass."
While much of the plot of "The Gathering" spun off from the assassination attempt on Kosh, the Vorlon ambassador, we didn't really spend much meaningful time with Kosh himself.  He didn't have any dialogue at all (unless you watched the special edition), and while he was mysterious, he had to wait until "Midnight on the Firing Line" to begin morphing into a genuinely cryptic and intimidatingly weird presence.
This next scene makes me think of something.  I've said that it is my belief that if one cannot watch the original edit of "The Gathering," one should skip it and simply begin Babylon 5 with "Midnight on the Firing Line."  I stand by that assessment; this episode gives you everything you need to know to follow along with it.
However, that doesn't mean that one's experience of "Midnight on the Firing Line" is unaffected unless one goes into it having also experienced "The Gathering."  This scene in the rock garden between Sinclair and G'Kar, for example, benefits mightily from knowing that this little hideaway which Sinclair has built for himself was previously the scene of at least two highly significant conversations between the Commander and Delenn.  This new scene cannot help but remind us of that, and it also serves as a counterpoint to the friendly ones with Delenn.  This meeting is very much unfriendly; and, taking place as it does within a tranquil (and Zen-like) setting, it brings G'Kar's concerns into even starker relief than they already were.
G'Kar: "Before going into battle, I also need to walk in the green for a moment.  We've recently managed to restore a few forests on my world.  It was all green, of course, before the Centauri stripped it bare."

Sinclair:  "And now you plan to return the favor.  Is that it?"

"I will confess that I look forward to the day when we have cleansed the universe of the Centauri and carved their bones into little flutes for Narn children.  It is a dream I have."

"Be careful, Ambassador; not every dream I've heard lately ends well for you."
This scene is almost certainly the highlight of the episode.  O'Hare is very good in it; Katsulas is great.  His delivery of the lines about the Centauri bones being turned into flutes for children is dark magic; wonderful, awful stuff.
Making their debut in this episode (I think): the Star Furies, the small fighter craft of the Earth alliance.  They're pretty cool, especially the realistic maneuvering.

Can't remember the name of this alien race.

The Drazi!

This guy cracks me up.  Can't remember his race's name, either.

"To start a war over blood spilled so long ago...  Where does it end?"


The business in which the entire council sort of just believes this "testimony" from Londo's nephew is pretty weak.  The way it's staged, you'd have to literally be an imbecile to think this was a coerced statement.  So the fact that literally nobody other than Londo seems to think so is pretty bad.  G'Kar calls on the council to dismiss the charges, and asks for a second, and then:

this guy wordlessly raises a finger.  It's unintentionally hilarious.

There is some pretty cool dogfight stuff, with a Babylon 5 twist on it.  Let's have a look:

If you want to go looking for it, you'll have no trouble finding pundits who tear down the visual effects work on Babylon 5, especially during the early seasons.

Me?  I think it's frequently quite good, and this is an example.  All of this is effective from a storytelling standpoint, and I really love the bit toward the end of this clip where the Star Fury (Sinclair's?) targets a raider by realizing its momentum is already taking it in the right direction; the pilot simply allows his ship to keep floating in that direction, and once momentum brings the enemy vessel within high sights, he blasts it.

Pretty damn cool, if you ask me.  That's cooler than 99% of ALL the ship-fighting action in all of Star Trek's various series.  Space battles are something Trek rarely does well; Babylon 5 mostly does not have the same problem.

Talia stumbles into Londo, who has, Scaramanga style, assembled a weapon from component parts and intends to gun G'Kar down.  She is restricted from unauthorized mind scans (see "The Gathering"), but has no defense against sudden and intense emotion brought about via physical contact.

But, of course, it doesn't happen that way.  Talia informs Garibaldi, who puts a stop to it well before it gets to that point.  This scene works pretty well; Garibaldi issues a very persuasive threat to Londo that if he lays a hand on a weapon, Garibaldi will kill him where he stands.  Little moments like this hint at the fact that Babylon 5 is a series which plays for keeps.  If one is a first-time viewer in 1994, one might conceivably think this is bluster designed to distinguish this series from others of the genre.  By ... oh, let's say 1996 ... viewers would know better.

In somewhat television-convenience manner, the entire Narn plot is foiled by Sinclair's having gotten involved in the b-plot (in which raiders [i.e., space pirates] are attacking vessels nearby) and found evidence that proves G'Kar's assertions to be false.  Oh, how 1994.  2018 misses you, '90s!

Awkwardly-staged but nevertheless not bad, the scene between Ivanova and Talia seems a bit out of place.  This, I suppose, is the episode's C-plot; and it's interesting enough that it ought to have been given a more prominent position in some other episode.

A little silly, perhaps, but this bit between Delenn and Garibaldi is beautifully played by Mira Furlan and Jerry Doyle.

The episode ends with Sinclair watching a newscast in which it is revealed that President Santiago has won re-election fairly handily.  It is somewhat ambiguous as to whether Sinclair is physically exhausted, or disgusted by the news; or, perhaps, both.

Among Santiago's primary platform points, according to the newscaster: building a stronger alliance with the Mars colony and preserving Earth cultures in the face of non-Terran influences. 
And with that the episode ends.

Ah, but that's not quite all for this post!  I'm also going to do a spoiler section at the ends of these posts, where applicable.  See, JMS wrote Babylon 5 with the idea that it was unfolding like a novel, and as a result, there are definitely aspects of the episodes that work best if you know the full story of the series.
Some of that is too fun for me to pass up, and so I won't pass it up.  I'm not going to go out of my way to spoil big things, but certain elements merit at least a wee bit of discussion.  I'd recommend skipping these bits if you've not seen the whole series; I'll be gentle, but I make no promises.
This episode is set against the backdrop of the election of a new Earth Alliance President.  Or, in this case, the re-election of the current one.  I love the way it's used as a plot device here; seems to be just a bit of background detail to establish the relationship the station has with Earth.  But this is a plot point that will have major ramifications throughout the rest of the series.  Very cool.  And that newscaster?  We'll see her again, many times; to great effect on at least one occasion.
This scene interests me.  In retrospect, we know that -- to exactly what extent possibly unclear, I will grant you -- this is the beginning of a romantic relationship between Susan and Talia.  The show never dwells on that much; this was 1994, and television simply wasn't as free to do such things.  The mere implication of it on a "family friendly" science-fiction series was about all you could expect, and even that felt like a seismic shift.  Speaking only for myself, I'll say that I had ZERO idea any of this was even being implied while I watched this scene.  I didn't pick up on it until a specific line of dialogue many, many, many episodes from now.  Which makes me wonder: were there viewers who picked up on it back then where I did not?  Of course; there must have been, right?  And similarly, I wonder if first-time viewers in 2018 pick up on it immediately and then expect a more explicit and meaningful exploration of the plot point?

Bryant's rating:  *** / *****


  1. (1) "A lot of my recent blogging has felt sloppy and lazy to me, consisting largely of unstructured nattering. I aspire to more than that; or, at least, I aspire to aspire to more than that." It's funny how those perceptions work. Your recent blogging has with no exceptions seemed more compelling than ever to me, yet I myself have written this sentence or a version of this sentence (I guess it's sentences plural) about my own blogging many times, as recently as this evening in an email to a friend. I don't bring this up for any drama or anything - and I came to the conclusion that to try better/ harder (and indeed, have more fun, as you say immediately after this) is always the best answer - only that it's always a struggle with self-publishing, blogging or otherwise.

    (2) I did watch this pilot, so I SHOULD have comments about it, but I struggled with it. Right from the get-go with Londo and his race's visuals. This is me, though, nt the show. My reaction was almost totally Trek-related, like "Before I make room for THESE guys, I have Trek to finish."

    (3) That JMS stat is pretty damn wild. It's not uncommon for British series to be all written by the same person, but they rarely rack up the episode count, with those 4-6 episode seasons they have over there, those lazy such and such. (While we're here I love the episode title, especially as the title for the pilot of the kind of show BABYLON 5 sounds like it was.)

    (4) Andreas Katsulas was a good actor. RIP. That screencap of him between Londo assembling Scaramanga-style his weapon and his firing it is awesome. (If that is indeed G'Kar. I think it is, but in case it isn't, wanted to note the possibility.)

    (5) "I'd recommend skipping these bits if you've not seen the whole series" I hope you don't think less of me for pressing on, but I don't mind learning some of the things to come, especially as it may be awhile before I can properly watch the series, so I'll undoubtedly forget all but the broadest strokes. These were indeed mild, but both are intriguing.

    1. (1) That's a terrific compliment, and I will happily accept it, with thanks. I've been having fun with it one way or the other, so my personal goals have been mostly satisfied. It's just, I always wish things were more structured, less unwieldy. But that's what revision is for, I guess; and who's got time for THAT?!?

      I'm already behind schedule on my doggone B5 blogging, which is no surprise given my October-thon activities. I may collapse the next few episodes into a single post, with fewer screencaps. Necessity!

      (2) No, I think it's the show. I remember being very put off by some of the look of the series in the early episodes, and indeed did not make it past the next one ("Soul Hunter") for several years. The show eventually rewards one's patience, for the most part; but without those roadblocks, such as the ridiculous hair, I think the show would have been more successful.

      (3) I heard an anecdote at one point that the title ("Midnight on the Firing Line") came from JMS's and company's feeling that they themselves -- i.e., the future of the series -- was on the firing line, and their survival depended on how this second pilot turned out. It wasn't *really* a second pilot, since the series had been picked up, but it felt that way to them. I'd say they dodged the bullets, personally; I like this episode, but it's got a lot working against it, especially for modern viewers.

      (4) I actually like those screencaps more than I like that brief little scene in motion! And yes, that's definitely G'Kar. Well, a vision of him, at any rate.

      (5) I'll go a bit further then and reveal that the election becomes a major plot point later on (and the fallout from what happens as a result of that is arguably the backbone of the entire series). As for the Ivanova/Talia relationship, the series mostly squanders its opportunities to do something with it. I think this is because of the era in which it was made, though; I think maybe JMS felt like a few hints was about all he could sneak past the censors.