Tuesday, November 20, 2018

A Washed-Up Old Republican Dreaming of Better Days: Babylon 5, "Born to the Purple" (season 1, episode 3)

Previously on Babylon 5... 

Tonight, on an all-new Babylon 5: Londo falls under the sway of an exotic dancer whose owner has tasked her with stealing the ambassador's "purple files," a collection of secrets about Centauri dignitaries which could be used to topple the very Republic.

(season 1, episode 3)
airdate:  February 9, 1994
written by:  Larry diTillio
directed by:  Bruce Seth Green
Not unlike "Soul Hunter," this is an important early episode in some ways; but not a particularly good one.  The limitations of the production are harmful; the acting is not entirely conducive to remaining unembarrassed by what you are watching; the dialogue is cringe-inducing at times (and excellent at others).  
It's low-rent stuff in many ways, and yet ... there's enough here of worth that it's impossible for me to write the episode off.  But is it impossible for first-time viewers to write it off?  I can just about guarantee you it is not.
Let's plow through this episode and have a look at both sides of that coin.

The episode opens in the Dark Star nightclub, where Londo is watching exotic dancers.  He's supposed to be finalizing the details for negotiations of some sort with the Narn.

G'Kar's distraction is kind of amusing.

The relationship between Londo and G'Kar in this scene is relatively civil considering the events of "Midnight on the Firing Line," in which G'Kar seemingly took part in a Narn plot to invade a Centauri colony, up to and including holding Mollari's nephew hostage and forcing him to read a false confession.  Is it plausible that G'Kar would have been able to hold onto his position after that?  Is it plausible that Earth would maintain relations with the Narn after that?  (For that matter, is it plausible that after the events of "The Gathering," Sinclair and G'Kar could stand to be in the same room with one another?)  I don't know.  Maybe it is.  But it strikes a false note here, at least for me.
I'm not sure it would have in 1994.  Remember, in this era of television character dynamics didn't change much (if at all) from one week to the next.  So what's going on in these early episodes with Londo and G'Kar (and Sinclair) is a sort of generic antagonism designed to establish a status quo, one which is demonstrably antagonistic but in almost a convivial sort of way.  Deep Space Nine was doing the same thing with Odo and Quark around this time, I'd point out.
I don't think we necessarily need to go to the spoilers section to say that in the case of Babylon 5, there would end up being major repercussions with these seemingly-status-quo character dynamics.  That happens to some degree on Deep Space Nine, as well, of course, but (not to compare the two series overmuch) not to quite the same extent.
Sinclair's talks are continually being undermined by Londo's distraction, which comes via a new romantic entanglement with Adira Tyree, one of the Dark Star dancers.

If you buy into this relationship at all, you probably enjoy "Born to the Purple."  If you don't, I can't imagine it being anything more than a hard sell at best.
The early scenes play around with our uncertainty over what we're seeing.  Surely Adira -- played by Fabiana Udenio (who had appeared in Bride of Re-Animator in a major role and would later play Alotta Fagina in the first Austin Powers) -- is too young and nimble a creature for a schlubby old fuck like Londo.  Right?  Right.  So of course, our natural assumption is that Londo is either paying for this piece of tail or that Adira is on a sugar-daddy hunt.  These are things that do happen, after all.
The surprising aspect is not that Adira's goals are less than altruistic, but that Londo's emotional attachment to her ends up being entirely genuine.  That, too, is realistic enough to pass muster for me: old bastards become deeply infatuated by hot young things all the damn time.  Why wouldn't they?  
It says a lot about who Londo is.  He's vocally touchy about his position being what she's drawn to, pointing out that all she's getting is "a washed-up old republican dreaming of better days."
We've already heard some of Londo's misgivings about the place the Centauri Republic holds in the galaxy now compared to a century ago.  Londo's own youth has departed; he is a fading relic of a fading people, and it's not a stretch to speculate that he has begun to identify his own fortunes with that of his people as a whole.  They are, perhaps, one and the same in his mind; I don't think it's a mistake that in talking himself down to Adira, he foregrounds his political nature. 
With that in mind, I don't think it's going to surprise anyone to learn that his passion for Adira will later be mirrored by a similarly unchecked passion for the fortunes of his people.  "Born to the Purple" may be a bit crap as an episode; but it's not worthless as character-building for at least one of its primary figures.
Maybe even more than one:
The b-plot -- c-plot? -- of the episode involves Garibaldi monitoring illegal gold-channel communications.  This channel is not only restricted to command personnel and the ambassadors, they are the only ones who even know about it.  What Garibaldi eventually discovers is that Ivanova is his "gremlin," and he is chagrined to discover that she has accessed the channel in order to have a final conversation with her father, who is back on Earth dying.
We get a good bit of backstory about Ivanova from this: she's been somewhat estranged from her father since her mother (a low-grade telepath, you may recall) died.  We also find out that her brother died in the war (the Minbari war, presumably).
Perhaps more importantly, we find out that Ivanova has no problem breaking the rules if she feels like there's a good reason for her to do so.  On top of that, we find out that Garibaldi is willing to go along with it provided there is an understanding between the two of them.  None of this is a major aspect of the episode; it's just a b/c-plot of the sort that most television shows deployed in those days in an effort to fill out the runtime and give their series regulars something to do to justify the paychecks they were receiving.
However, it is, arguably, also more than that here.  This episode also sees Sinclair -- and, to a lesser degree, Talia -- bending the rules a bit in order to do the right thing.  So in this episode, we see three of the four major command officers (excepting only Franklin, who is not present) demonstrating a willingness to play fast and loose with the rules in order to achieve the goals they deem necessary.
This will not be the final time that happens.

Adira is eventually revealed to be a slave whose owner, Trakis, is forcing her to seduce Londo and steal from him the "purple files" he possesses.  These files are full of secrets about various Centauri citizens, and could be used to more or less topple the Republic.  So needless to say, Trakis wants to sell them to the highest bidder, and bidding is expected to be pretty damn high.
None of that works for me.  Do I believe that Londo might possess such files?  Sure.  Do I believe that they might cause a huge amount of trouble?  Sure.  Do I believe they would topple a government?  Nah, not really; but that's okay, I really need only believe that Trakis believes it, and I do believe that.  What trips me up is the idea that Londo would keep them on a laptop, with what seems to me like an incredibly insufficient amount of security.  For me, that simply doesn't pass the smell test.  I'll roll with it, I guess; but with squinty eyes.
"Lousy Dodgers...," grumbles Garibaldi.  I assume that by the year 2258 newspapers are a relic only enjoyed by hipsters.  Which actually kind of fits Garibaldi's character in some ways.

The visual effects are murky, but I like the idea that Fresh Air (apparently the classiest restaurant on the station) offers a view of the cylindrical interior of the station.

This scene is weird.  There's zero hint that this is a romantic dinner between Sinclair and Talia; I mean, she's dressed to the nines and all, and they seem friendly, but I don't think the episode is steering us in that direction.  Sinclair just says that he thinks she earned a good meal after a long day's work, and THAT, my friend, is probably a step over the line unless it's 100% clear that it isn't.
Not a great look.

WTF.  Look, man, to each his own, but I don't feel good about one of my people being attracted to an alien whose species evidently has vagina-dentata for a face.  WTF.

Let's talk about the scene in which Sinclair and Londo go in "disguise" to Dark Star to try to rustle up some information on Adira's whereabouts after she steals Londo's files.  First of all, those "disguises" are pathetic.  I don't really have a second; that first is enough.
In her book Signs and Portents (an invaluable episode guide for the first season), Jane Killick talks to the episode's writer, Lawrence G. DiTillio, about one of my major problems with the episode: the idea that Sinclair could go anywhere on the station without being recognized.  DiTillio posits a perfectly logical scenario in which given its population of a quarter of a million people, there would be tons of people who wouldn't recognize the station's commander.  Intellectually, I know this to be true; I live in a city smaller than that, and I likely wouldn't recognize my mayor.  I might; I know his name.  But if he walked up to me and behaved in an unmayoral manner?  I might not know it was him.
Thing is, given the show's budget, the population of Babylon 5 appears to actually be about 76.  So while it makes intellectual sense that the Dark Star's owner might have no clue who Sinclair (or Londo, for that matter) is, it simply doesn't feel right.  Compare this with the flip side of the coin: if Sinclair had walked in and the club's owner had called him by name and asked what the commander of the station was doing in his establishment, would that have felt even slightly unrealistic?
What's realistic doesn't always read as realistic in fiction, after all.
Michael O'Hare is pretty great in this scene.  Sinclair is a reserved fellow, but in his "disguise" mode, he kind of goes wild.  O'Hare does it quite well.

This guy is, I guess, a Space Italian.  I don't know why you'd do something like this on a television show.

Is this the final appearance of N'Grath, except for in the show's credit sequence?  I think it might be.

Here's a goddamn Space Chuck Norris and his alien sidekick.  I actually kind of love the makeup on the sidekick.
The final major thing I wanted to talk about is the ruse Sinclair cooks up to use G'Kar as a means of getting the purple files back from Trakis.  After Londo -- who, with evident seriousness, calls Sinclair his good and dear friend -- approaches the commander and pleads for help, Sinclair realizes he's got an opportunity: he asks Londo to agree to his concessions in the Euphrates treaty negotiations.  Londo agrees, and Sinclair then decides to also try to leverage G'Kar into agreeing to concessions by putting him in contact with Trakis about the purple files.
Of course, G'Kar never gets his hands on them; with Talia's help, Trakis accidentally reveals Adira's location, and the files are recovered.  Dude didn't immediately make a copy of them?!?  What am amateur.
I wondered, watching this, whether Sinclair, Londo, and probably Talia too had not permanently burned their bridges with G'Kar.  But then I remembered that by all rights, he'd already burned his bridges with Sinclair and Londo, to the extent that such bridges existed in the first place.  So really, what's going on here is so nonsensical from a character-motivation standpoint that I'm not sure it works in any way.  It's so unbelievable that objecting to it seems almost pointless.
But, again, let's try to remember to view this from a 1994 perspective.  Television shows were all about the status quo, and were frequently written almost as if the characters themselves understood this in a metafictional way.  Londo and G'Kar are not entirely unlike the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote; they swap positions at times, it might be argued, but their core relationship remains one of deep but weirdly harmless antagonism.  For now; that may not be the case by the end of the series.  For a first-time viewer on the night this episode aired, however, I think this stuff played as familiar and comforting getting-to-know-the-character-dynamics television.
So much so that when Londo, having retrieved his precious files, looks at G'Kar and tells the Narn that he's helped save his career, and maybe even the Centauri Republic, the moment is played for a laugh.  Literally!  There's a comedic flourish in Christopher Franke's score; Andreas Katsulas makes a comedically frustrated sound (it may as well be a "d'oh!"); and as Peter Jurasik grins broadly, we cut to Michael O'Hare and Andrea Thompson, not quite laughing it up, but definitely amused.  It's so blandly stock-television a moment that it could be put in a museum as an example of its kind.

It's unclear to me whether Straczynski and his team were doing this because they thought it was what television demanded, or whether they were also employing a long-con rope-a-dope method that would make it more effective when they began subverting such notions (and how) a bit further down the line.  It plays to me like the former; but it works as the latter.  Either way, I think it distances modern viewers, more often than not.  
And while I think a certain amount of patience with this episode is rewarded in the end, I also think it's ultimately kind of a lame episode, so the reward is somewhat minimal.
Now, before we call it a night, a few bulletpoint observations:
  • The Narn equivalent of Vir (meaning the ambassador's aide) is introduced: Ko'Dath, played by genre stalwart Mary Woronov.  I saw her recently in Night of the Comet and The House of the Devil, neither of which are recent movies, but both of which were new to me.  She's appallingly awful in this episode.  How could she not be?  It's a poorly written role, to say the least.  "Hey, hot-spots, how about you and me blow this joint and go play a little Scan The Sector," says a random dude who hits on her at Dark Star.  This guy might be the same guy who's seemingly hitting on the Vagina-Dentata-Faced alien later on.  That guy needs therapy.  Anyways, everything with Ko'Dath is terrible.
  • This episode is one of the relatively few not written by JMS.
  • Vir and his video game = suck.  The only amusing thing about it is when you cut to the conference room later on and see that the Narns are so bored that they are now playing it, too.
  • "What do you want, you moon-faced assassin of joy?" hollers Londo at Vir, who has just interrupted his post-coital bliss.  That shit makes me laugh every time.
  • Why "purple" files?  I guess the idea is that purple is a royal color, so these files are both related to nobility and arguably what has put Londo's family in the position they are in.  Sure, whatever.
  • What's with the Kryptonian file-storage technology?
  • The score by Christopher Franke is solid; he adds a good bit of emotion to the Londo/Adira relationship.
  • When Trakis puts his keycard into the door of Adira's quarters, you can see the wall of the set wobble. 

Bryant's rating:  **/*****

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